PLANT CITY Ground was broken Wednesday for a train-viewing platform but that's only part of the city's ambitious plans for the area around its old train depot.
Retired railroad engineer R.W. "Bob" Willaford is planning to donate a train engine and caboose that he owns to the city. The engine and caboose will be placed on display just outside of the old train station at 102 N. Palmer St.
City and business officials who spoke at the groundbreaking noted that the city was named for Henry B. Plant, who brought the railroad to town in the 1880s.
"Henry Plant had a vision for a town. Today we have a vision to make this a great tourist destination," City Manager Greg Horwedel said.
The train-viewing platform will be an elevated building where railroad enthusiasts can watch trains go by. The platform will cost $200,000, and major contributors have included CSX, which donated $25,000, and the Plant City Lions Club, which chipped in $5,000. Fundraising continues.
The platform will sit about 14 feet off the ground, and be covered with a roof for a total height of nearly 29 feet. The architecture is similar to the nearly century-old depot, which closed as a train station years ago.
Willaford has the engine and caboose on display outside his home north of Plant City. City Commissioner Mike Sparkman said he jumped at the chance to move them to the depot.
"We are very grateful to him. This will add a lot to the depot area and help make it a tourist destination," Sparkman said.
Willaford is well known in Plant City for opening his caboose for visits by children at Easter and Christmas. The open houses include free goodies for the kids from Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and tips on railroad safety.
The depot, now called Union Station Welcome Center and Railroad Museum, will be renamed in Willaford's honor, Sparkman said.
Willaford was at the ceremony but didn't address the crowd.
Sparkman said he hopes to have the platform completed and the engine and caboose on display before Christmas.