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Vision, partnerships bring rail industry to Tabor City

Steam Services of America President Robert Franzen, left, is greeted by Tabor City Committee of 100 President Trent Burroughs as SSOA corporate headquarters were welcomed to Tabor City Monday. Others taking part, from the right, included state Rep. Brenden Jones, Mayor Royce Harper, and Columbus County Commissioner Brent Watts. (Deuce Niven, TLT)


     Unwavering vision and important local, state and industry partnerships were celebrated at Tabor City’s Garrell Depot Tuesday in a welcome ceremony for Steam Services of America.

     Currently based in Sylva, SSOA is moving its corporate headquarters to the Garrell Depot as work begins on a railroad industrial park north of town.

     “I can’t think of a more exciting time or a bigger event,” Mayor Royce Harper said in opening remarks, before presenting a key to the city, and more importantly a key to the Garrell Depot, to SSOA President Robert Franzen.

     Franzen, later in the program inside the Garrell Depot, said he had been considering Tabor City as a new hub for his Sylva based railroad repair and restoration facility, and was impressed with the reception Tuesday, and with the effort from local and state leaders to make the dream happen.

     “I thank everyone who came here today,” Franzen said. “It’s starting to happen. We’re going to repair railroad equipment, we’re looking forward to being here and economic development.”


     Dreaming, determination, cooperation and hard work that began locally and expanded greatly made the reality of Tuesday’s welcome ceremony happen, Tabor City Town Manager said in what proved to be the event’s keynote address.

     Acknowledging many who made bringing SSOA to Tabor City possible, Leonard focused on three: town Promotions Director Dianne Nobles Ward, state Rep. Brenden Jones, and Franzen.

     Ward came to work for town government 11 years ago, and was almost immediately appointed to a committee that resulted in bringing RJ Corman Railroad to the region, buying a rail line that stretched from Chadbourn to Conway and Myrtle Beach, and to Fair Bluff and Mullins.

     The “dilapidated” railroad was saved by Corman, Leonard said, through efforts of the group that was co-chaired by Tabor City attorney Dennis Worley, who put time and money into the project.

     “Dianne saw that a railroad could and should be an asset that would pay many more dividends that just those that meet the eye,” Leonard said. “She researched any and all things about railroads over the past few years and her paths crossed with an entrepreneur named Robert Franzen and a company called Steam Services of America.”

     In the meantime Ward was tasked with other projects, the restoration of the old Ritz Theater, now The Ritz Center; shepherding a business incubator project in the former Heilig-Meyers Building, a project nearing completion, “and many other major projects,” Leonard said. “She kept an eye on how Tabor City and Columbus County could capitalize on the fact that a railroad through the middle of our community has been saved and repaired.

     “Today we can say that her hard work has paid off. Dianne never gave up on her vision that Tabor City could and should capitalize off of this railroad.”


     Leonard noted that Franzen was on the front page of this newspaper in April 2018, a part of coverage of a fact-finding mission by town leaders to Georgia and Tennessee to explore bringing tourism rail to Tabor City.

     While that dream has not been realized, Franzen, Leonard said, liked what he learned about the town and county and had a vision of moving his company.

     “To his credit, over the past five years, he and his team stopped by Tabor City just about every time they were visiting in the area,” Leonard said of Franzen.

     Key to the project was state support. Leonard said state Rep. Jones, a Republican whose home is just a mile from the Garrell Depot, proved to be a loyal and steadfast ally.

     “We have to be honest with ourselves and state for the record that we definitely would not be here today if it weren’t for the amazing, steadfast, and heroic efforts of our very own Rep. Brenden Jones,” Leonard said.

Tin cup

     For evidence, Leonard had three exhibits, the first more than two years old, largely unknown, and certainly unheralded before Tuesday.

     “I have here in my hand a bill that Rep. Jones sort of slipped into other legislation that gave Tabor City the authority to engage in railroad related activities,” Leonard said. “As far as we know, Tabor City is the only municipality in North Carolina with that stated authority that has legally only been reserved for counties in our state.”

     Second, also more than two years ago, Jones learned that funding for the Garrell Depot, not yet named then, was falling short, leaving town leaders prepared to slash the project.

     “We were getting ready to remove from the project the large loading dock you see outside and also the interior offices here behind me,” Leonard said. “Rep. Jones stepped in and secured a legislative grant to fully complete this building.

     “His directive was clear to the town: don’t cut the loading dock and don’t cut out the offices either because you are going to need them in the future.”

     Finally, though featured early in the program, Jones secured a $9 million grant for construction of a railroad industrial park, the future SSOA home located just off of Ten Mile Road near Clarendon.

State Rep. Brenden Jones, left, presented a ceremonial check to Mayor Royce Haper for the new railroad industrial park coming to the Tabor City area. Seated was Columbus County Commissioner Brent Watts. (Deuce Niven, TLT)

     “The record will show that Tabor City watched in quietness as our representative utilized his seniority and his position as one of the General Assembly’s top appropriation authorities to get $9 million dollars for the development of the railroad industrial park,” Leonard said.

     Jones, early in the program, presented a ceremonial $9 million check to Mayor Royce Harper.

     “History will show that Tabor City held out its tin cup and begged for the chance to do this project,” Leonard said. “History will also show that Rep. Jones stuck a dollar, no make that 9 million dollars, into that tin cup.

     “Just like Dianne and Robert, Rep. Brenden Jones never gave up on his promise to the town.”

     For more on this story see this week’s Tabor-Loris Tribune in print and online.