Owners hopping off Canyon train Mark Shaffer Republic Flagstaff Bureau Mar. 25, 2006 12:00 AM WILLIAMS - Max Biegert will be the first to admit that he nearly lost his shirt in the first seven years after he brought Grand Canyon Railway back from the dead. He and his wife, Thelma, were advised against buying the defunct 65-mile railroad. Critics said people wouldn't buy tickets for a ride that was pricey and not picturesque. That was 17 years ago. Today, with a lot of business savvy and a boost from the 1995 opening of a hotel in Williams, the Paradise Valley couple have built the vintage railroad into a healthy enterprise. It has nearly 500 workers and revenue that has almost doubled to nearly $40 million since 2000. Now the couple are ready to go out on top. They are putting the railroad, which provides daily tour service between Williams and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, on the market. They're trying to ensure that the railroad retains its Wild West theme - daily rides feature an old-fashioned shootout and train robbery - and that their future development plans for Williams will be realized. Max Biegert said a price has not been determined. "If I was 20 years younger, you couldn't pull me away from this, and I'm going to be extremely careful in who I let buy it," said Biegert, 78. "We think we are going to have quite a few choices in buyers." Employees told The railway's 469 employees, along with others in the city, were told of the planned sale on Friday. "There's a lot of concern here because anytime there's a change in by far your Number 1 economic driver, everyone wants to know what it means for the future," Williams City Manager Dennis Wells said. But Kim Dent, co-owner of Rustic Raspberry gift shop, said she isn't worried. "I think it will continue to grow no matter who owns it," Dent said. "It's an engine unto itself now. Every time they have added new rides, like the Polar Express during the Christmas season, they have been wildly successful." The Biegerts have hired Phoenix investment banking firm Peacock, Hislop, Staley & Given to locate a buyer within the next two years for about 1,000 acres they own in Williams and west of Grand Canyon Airport, near the community of Tusayan. In addition to the Williams depot, railroad stock, and track and right of way, the Biegerts own a restaurant, 300-room hotel and RV park within the city. All that would be sold as part of the railroad. Biegert said he also would like to see the buyer follow through with a master plan for more than 100 acres of railway property east of the depot. New rides planned After a tenuous beginning in 1989 and a few rough years in the early 1990s, ridership began taking off after the mid-1990s, spurred by innovations like the Polar Express, a train ride modeled after a popular children's book (and now a movie). The ride is marketed to parents and their children. David Chambers, president of Grand Canyon Railway, said other rides with special themes will begin this year, including Thomas the Train for the young and a Sunset Limited late-afternoon run to the Grand Canyon featuring big-band groups, wines and hors d'oeuvres. The number of tourists riding the train's vintage cars has jumped from about 90,000 the first year to nearly 225,000 this year, railway figures show. Revenues have climbed from $4 million in the railway's first year to nearly $40 million last year, Chambers said. He said any buyer would have to receive an operating permit from the National Park Service to use a rail terminal and track within the national park. It costs $19,500 annually. Unintentional owners The Biegerts never intended to get into the rail-tour business. They thought they had retired to Paradise Valley in the early 1980s after making a fortune in aerial crop dusting and, later, the day-care business. But money they lent to an investor trying to redevelop the railroad in the mid-1980s wasn't repaid and, in a settlement, the 20 miles of track south of Grand Canyon Village went to the Biegerts. Consultants who had worked previously for the Walt Disney Corp. told the Biegerts that any business proposition linking the Grand Canyon, which has nearly 5 million visitors a year, and Interstate 40 was promising. But they recommended not developing it because of the expense and time involved. But the Biegerts plowed ahead, pouring millions of dollars into new track and some of the best historic rail cars and engines in the country.