Gilbert is a small town once again - within the basement of its historical museum.
A handful of model railroad enthusiasts from across the East Valley looking for a new home for a set of displaced Tempe trains signed on with the museum with a promise they would have a diorama of small-town Gilbert set up in time for this year's Gilbert Days celebration, which ends today. The first phase of the exhibit opened Saturday.
It's the start of what's envisioned to be a 10-year exhibit that will take up the entire basement of the museum, located in an old elementary school at the corner of Elliot and Gilbert roads.
It's also another in a series of steps the Gilbert Historical Society is taking toward self-sufficiency as it is weaned off a $50,000 annual subsidy it's been getting from the town. The subsidy is supposed to end a year from now.
"What they're trying to do is get the youth more engaged in the museum," said Roy Sas, the "construction superintendent" of a group now calling itself the Gilbert Model Railroad Club.
He's been overseeing the re-creation of downtown Gilbert circa 1955, on top of a wooden table.
Most of the work that had to be done to prepare for the exhibit has actually been on the side entrance into the basement, where a stairway was relocated and a new hallway built to resemble the curved ceiling and rectangular windows of a vintage passenger car. The windows have the original wooden frames preserved from one of the first passenger trains used in the United States.
So on Thursday evening seven men were setting the town up on a table which will be just across the glass from viewers.
The display includes replicas of the current homes of Joe's BBQ and Norwood Furniture, the hay barns that used to dominate the south end of downtown; the train station that once stood where the park-and-ride lot is today; and, of course, the water tower, painted black to match photos taken circa 1955.
Double tracks will allow the trains to run past each other at scale speeds of around 35 mph, Sas said, even though they could go a little faster than that. "You don't want the trains running too fast while they're going through the town," he said.
Longer-range plans call for the diorama and train to include parts of Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix, and to extend east to cover representations of Williams Air Force Base and beyond to the copper mines at Superior and Ray, as well as switches that will allow viewers to control the trains.
The Gilbert Historical Society is nearing the end of a five-year contract which has the town giving the society a $50,000 annual grant, nearly half the museum's $125,000 annual operating budget. After that the museum is supposed to operate independent of any town subsidy.
This has spurred numerous upgrades at the museum, including the addition of a gift shop and the refurbishing of a conference room which is now rented out for meetings. The Web site will be updated to allow books and other items to be sold, and beginning Dec. 2 the museum will be open two more days a week to increase attendance, which is now about 5,000 visitors a year.
"We're less and less in the hole every year, but we're still in the hole," executive director Kayla Kolar said. "Even with the town's money we're in the hole."
So the next year will see an even bigger push to boost individual and corporate memberships at the museum, which now number around 170.
"That's not very many for the size of the community, but that's because everyone here is from somewhere else," Kolar said.
"So that's our new motto, we want to be a place where people feel at home," she said.
The $50,000 is part of the $504,000 the town is giving to nonprofit agencies. Last week the Town Council approved keeping that figure at the same level for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Mayor Steve Berman said he'd still like to find some money for the museum once the contract runs out, even as the needs of local social service agencies are likely to grow.
"You can say we don't need it this year, but once you lose history you can never get it back," Berman said.
Councilwoman Linda Abbott also said she didn't see the municipal support for the museum disappearing entirely, but how much money will be available is difficult to say.
"I don't know what our budget is going to be, so I don't know what their budget is going to be," Abbott said.