Source Lunch with…Joe Mazur

Source Lunch with…Joe Mazur

Crain’s Cleveland Business | By Sue Walton, July 1, 2018

If you ask Joe Mazur about his career, he’ll say he’s following the advice of his dad: “I learned from my father that you should like what you do, and then you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Mazur started his career at Thistledown, where his father worked as a trainer; moved to SMG, where he ran Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center; made a stop at the International Soap Box Derby; and for the past year has been riding the rails of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

The nonprofit railroad, which is in the middle of a capital campaign and whose existence is made possible by scores of volunteers, is more popular than ever, with annual ridership of more than 200,000. Its scenic rides and special event trips through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park provide an economic boost for the region, drawing riders from across the globe.

“In Peninsula depot, they’ve had a world map and people put a pin from where they’re from, and people from all over the world ride the train,” he said. When asked his favorite lunch spot, Mazur said the train, so we caught a ride.

How often do you ride the train?

I’m on it all the time. The volunteers see me. I’m on getting a (hot) dog. I call them breakfast dogs. If it’s before 11 a.m., I get on and get a breakfast dog.

How steep was your learning curve?

I knew nothing of trains when I started. I didn’t pick up a single book. I like to just get on and learn. Just being a sponge, and just listening to the volunteers, you learn a lot. I just like new challenges. The challenge was, “Let’s learn what this is about.”

How many volunteers versus paid staff work for the railroad?

We only have full-time, paid: 25. And 1,800 volunteers. We had 104,000 hours of volunteer service last year. Since we’ve been recording the volunteer hours since 1999, we just hit 1 million hours.

What kind of people volunteer?

There could be an airline pilot, there could be a CPA, a lawyer. It’ so cool. (A retired Ohio state representative was spied volunteering on our ride.)

What are the biggest challenges with so many volunteers?

I don’t find a challenge with volunteers. What I find a challenge is that these are historic cars. This car is 70 years old. We have 29 cars that are on average 70 years old. Keeping up with the fleet preservation is the biggest challenge.

You were at the Soap Box Derby, which was part of the identity of Akron. This is part of the identity of Akron … (Mazur chimes in)

Northeast Ohio. It’s very important for us to emphasize the fact that we’re in Cuyahoga County as much as we’re in Summit County. I think folks sometimes feel that we’re a Summit County organization. We’re not. Our busiest station is Independence.

Explain the connection between the national park and the railroad.

The tracks are owned by the national park. They maintain the tracks. They also own our Fitzwater Train Yard, and they also own the office we have on Stine Road (in Peninsula). A lot of ticket pricing, we get their blessing on. There are folks on board the train specifically to entertain our guests and talk about the park. That’s part of our partnership. The park supports our education programs. It’s one of those things where we don’t exist without them.

If federal funding pinches the park, does it pinch you?

A little bit. We’re about a $5.5 million nonprofit organization, and we’re fine. But we need that endowment to secure us. If the park is shut down, we can’t run. So, if the park shuts down during the middle of Polar Express, we’re refunding a lot of money.

Tell me about the capital campaign. How is it going so far?

Good. We’re over $2 million of a $5 million capital campaign. And the neat thing about our campaign is that we have multiple projects that need to be completed, so as soon as we get the right amount of money to complete that project, we start it. So it’s not like we need to wait until it’s all in. We’ve already spent almost $1.5 million now.

On what?

Over the history of the organization, we’ve slowly increased the cars and capacity. There was a deficiency in power. So the lights and all the power on the train is another car that is right behind the locomotive. It’s our power car. It’s a generator. It’s a big diesel engine that powers the train. So we have two of those now. And that’s what we needed. So both cars are fully powered, and there are backup generators. So, if that goes out, there are additional generators to keep us going. That was about $1.2 million.

What else is on the wish list?

A domed dining car is another thing. Something called the “edu-trainment car.” It’s a rolling children’s museum. When kids are on the car, typically they’ll get bored a little bit after seeing enough trees. So, we’re looking for a place for the kids to go and be entertained, like a children’s museum but pull elements of the national park into the car. It’s a quarter of a million for that car and we’re almost there. But we still need funding for it. Plus, an ADA (American Disabilities Act) dining car. You saw we have an ADA accessible coach car, but we don’t have an ADA accessible dining car. That’s really big on our list. Plus, there’s $1 million in the campaign for fleet preservation. And the idea is to create an endowment for us. It’s a $5 million capital campaign, but we think we can raise more than that, and that would go into an endowment.

Lunch spot

Aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

Stations are in Independence, Peninsula and Akron.

The meal

Two hot dogs and two soft drinks.

The vibe

Riders can grab casual lunch (hot dogs, wraps) and snacks in the dining car, though the train does run more formal dining trips in the summer. Guests can enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the park riding in coach cars or upgrade to the first-class car, dome car or the St. Lucie Sound luxury car.

The bill

$6 (train tickets extra)

Five things

Bet you didn’t know

Rail buffs are called foamers, as in foaming at the mouth when they see a train.

Favorite theme ride?

Mazur’s is the Grape Escape wine-tasting trip, riding in the dome car.

Guilty pleasure?

“I love sweets. I’ve got a pocketful of candy.”

“Crazy Train” or “Midnight Train to Georgia”?

“I’ll go ‘Crazy Train.’ I’m an Ozzy (Osbourne) fan.”

Dream job?

“I think I have it.”

See the full article by Sue Walton at

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Lynee Bixler