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Sat, Dec. 07

Railway lands on Xanterra
Letter of intent to buy accepted by Railway

Final movements on the high-profile sale of the Grand Canyon Railway may now be under way.

The company responsible for hospitality operations at the Grand Canyon National Park ‹ Xanterra Parks and Resorts ‹ was one of the final few in running for the purchase of the tourism attraction. On Friday, the GCR issued an official press release stating that Xanterra had risen to the top and that the GCR had indeed accepted Xanterra's letter of intent to purchase the operation and most of its holdings.

Railway owners Max and Thelma Biegert recently began a searching for buyers after holding the business for nearly 20 years. More than 200 potential buyers had been contacted with 25 percent entering the sales process.

"When Max decided to sell it, obviously Xanterra was the first to come to my mind simply because of the fact that they're established there on the south rim and we already do a considerable amount of business with them. It just seemed like such a natural," said GCR President Dave Chambers.

Aside from the Grand Canyon's South Rim, Xanterra Parks and Resorts ‹ based out of Denver, Colo. ‹ currently operates concessions in Yellowstone, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Crater Lake, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Death Valley and Petrified Forest National Parks. It also operates resorts in California and New York, and handles concessions in eight Ohio State Parks.

The Fred Harvey Company was the first to provide hospitality services at the Canyon and Xanterra purchased that company in 1968.

The Grand Canyon Railway was built in 1901 and provided rail service until 1968. The operation was dormant for nearly 20 years until the Biegerts restored the historic route with their own funding and reinstated train service in the fall of 1989 ‹ only a few years after the Williams portion of Route 66 had been bypassed by Interstate-40. Since then, nearly 2.5 million people have traveled aboard the Railway (222,000 in 2005 alone).

"Our purchase of the Grand Canyon Railway is a logical progression as both companies are already in the business of helping to create unforgettable experiences for visitors to the Grand Canyon," said Xanterra Parks & Resorts President Andrew N. Todd in the release.

The sale includes the train, its hotel/resort in Williams, 162 acres along the tracks up to the maintenance yard, and a 160-acre area just outside the Grand Canyon National Park called "Imbleau" or "Apex."

What is not included is the 488-acre Gonzales Ranch parcel in Williams. Chambers said that property is also for sale and that the Biegerts are considering offers now.

One of the most obvious concerns about the pending sale is how the railway will be run under its new ownership, what plans there are for expansion, and if anything will change.

Unfortunately, until the purchase has been solidified, Xanterra isn't talking.

"At this stage of the venture, we think it's premature to talk about future plans while we're still in the due diligence stage, offered Xanterra Vice President of Sales and Marketing Judy Lages. "So we are going to limit our response at this time just to what the news release says."

Chambers and other officials at the GCR, however, are comfortable with speculating that the new ownership will be a smooth one. The press release said that one of the items strengthening Xanterra's bid was their intention of retaining the current GCR employee base.

"Xanterra has indicated that the organization will stay intact," Chambers said. "As our organization exists, we will continue to be involved with the community, just like we are now."

As far as its employees ‹ which number nearly 500 ‹ Chambers said the mood was positive, especially since the mystery of who the most likely buyers would be has been revealed.

Now that the GCR has the letter of intent from Xanterra, Chambers estimates that a new level of due diligence will occur over the next 30-45 days. During that time, a final sales agreement will be negotiated. Once the final documents are signed, the deal gets handed over to the National Parks Service for its stamp of approval.

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