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'Model' Holiday Train has big impact on local food shelf

The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train makes its annual stop in Cottage Grove Saturday. Last year's event raised $58,000 for the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park.

The Canadian Pacific Railway's Holiday Train chugs into Cottage Grove Saturday evening.

For Michelle Rageth, executive director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park, the timing couldn't be better.

As the calendar gets set to turn on what has been the busiest year ever at south Washington County's food bank, Rageth said Friends in Need will have helped more than 26,000 people put food on the table this year, up 10,000 from just two years ago. The food shelf's biggest fundraiser is about to roll into town, festooned with thousands of Christmas lights that will draw thousands of revelers for the seventh consecutive year.

As the Holiday Train's popularity has boomed in south Washington County, so too has its importance to increasingly-busy Friends in Need. Last year, the Holiday Train Committee raised $58,000 for the local food shelf, a number that Rageth said makes up roughly 30 percent of Friends in Need's annual budget.

"We're very grateful," she said.

Local businesswoman Mary Slusser, the owner of Spartan Promotional Group, and the Holiday Train Committee she leads is more than happy to help. Committee members built the Cottage Grove stop into the largest along the Holiday Train's cross-continental trek, according to Canadian Pacific.

The 2009 event drew around 8,000 people, raised almost $60,000 and collected over 16,700 pounds of food and toys.

"It has grown beyond my expectations," said Slusser, who led the push to persuade Canadian Pacific to add a Cottage Grove stop in 2004. "And it's been fun to watch that grow."

'Event for community'

South Washington County has embraced the event, drawing thousands who brave the pre-Christmas cold for hot chocolate, holiday music and the bright lights of the illuminated train.

And there are the glow sticks - thousands and thousands of them - that people snap up for a small charge to create a light show of their own along the side of the railroad track.

"That's kind of what we're known for," Slusser said.

The success of the Cottage Grove stop hasn't escaped the notice of Canadian Pacific executives, some of whom visited the Friends in Need food shelf last month and will ride the train into south Washington County on Saturday to see the event's biggest stop. It is a stop that one company official called "a model for other communities."

"We believe Cottage Grove is doing exactly what we envisioned the program to be," said Canadian Pacific spokesperson Jeff Johnson. "They are making it an event for the community."

Since the event began in Cottage Grove in 2004, the Holiday Train has raised more than $227,000 and collected over 75,000 pounds of food for Friends in Need. When the train rolled to a stop along West Point Douglas Road that first year, the food shelf assisted roughly 11,000 people, Rageth said. Now, as middle class families touched by the economic downturn turn to it for help, Friends in Need's numbers have more than doubled.

"It just really started jumping the last two years," Rageth said.

That, Slusser said, has made the Holiday Train event all the more gratifying for the committee's 15 volunteers.

"It's heartwarming to be able to present that check," she said, "just knowing how many families we are helping."

Want to go?

What: 2010 Canadian Pacific Railway Holiday Train

When: Saturday, Dec. 11 from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Where: West Point Douglas Road, south of the Sieben Bridge at 80th Street

Check for coverage of Saturday's Holiday Train Event, and share your thoughts on the event in our comments section or on the Bulletin's Facebook page.