the future of ypsilanti’s freighthouse

Ypsi’s Freighthouse is my favorite place in the world. Or, at least, it was. I can’t remember when I first started going there. It was probably 11 or 12 years ago now. I know I’ve written about my memories of it here before, so I’ll keep this brief, but it was a magical kind of a place. A few other communities out there, I imagine, have public spaces warmed by wood burning stoves where folks gather around and talk, make music together, drink coffee, play with babies, and the like. There was something different here, though. I’m trying hard not to use the word “spiritual” here, because I don’t want to be someone that would say something like that, but there was something about it that made me feel really good, and surprisingly optimistic about the human condition. I’ve never been in a room where an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s could stand up and start dancing alongside little kids as though she were one of them, and it wouldn’t seem at all odd. But stuff like that happened at the Freighthouse all the time. I don’t want to overstate it, but there really was this incredible sense of inclusion and camaraderie that crossed all the typical lines that separate us from one another as human beings.

Sitting there on Saturday mornings was the most “in the moment,” free of worry, and happy that I have ever been. And it’s a big part of why I agreed to move back to Ypsilanti and settle down here. I wanted to live in a place where black kids could dance to amateur bluegrass next to an old man wearing a dress, like it was the most natural thing in the world. It reminded me of the Twin Peaks universe, only everything, instead of having a dark, seedy underbelly hidden just below the surface, had a kind of a hidden beauty, and a glowing shimmer. It was quirky and beautiful. It was a like a little window into the heart of our City.

So, when I had an opportunity not too long ago to argue here on the blog that money directed toward the Riverside Arts Center should instead have been used to make the repairs necessary to reopen the Freighthouse, I took it. Several good folks came forward to explain the situation to me, and tell me why I was wrong to argue that one was more valuable to the community than the other, and they were probably right. They pointed out that, as wonderful a place as the Freighthouse was, there presently isn’t a business plan in place that would see it operational, even if the repairs could be made. The Riverside Arts Center, on the other hand, had a plan, a track record, and a responsible Board. The Freighthouse had a Friends group that, while well intentioned, hadn’t been able to move the project forward significantly over the past several years. As it was explained to me by one person, “They’re organized enough to stop a private developer from coming in and doing anything with the building, but they aren’t organized enough to raise the money for the repairs and see it opened as a viable, self-supporting entity.” So, let’s say all that’s true — what now?

Are the people of Ypsilanti willing to get behind the Freighthouse in a significant way? It seems like there’s some movement in that direction already. On this very site the other day, a commenter calling herself Loose Tea offered $50 of her own money and challenged others to do the same. Here’s a quote:

…I will send a $50 check to the address you indicate tomorrow. If 5 people also indicate here they will send a $50 check to the Freighthouse, I will send in a second check for another $50. I’d give more, but don’t have more and, yes, will go on the honor system…

And, another friend of this site, who plays in a band called Black Jake and the Carnies, has put together a fundraiser for the Freighthouse that will take place at the Corner Brewery on April 5.

And, several people have suggested that we launch a campaign to collect pledges for the Freighthouse like the one our friend Murph started not too long ago to see our City Hall go solar.

But more is needed. As I understand it, over $300,000 in repairs have to be done before the building can be opened to the public. The good news is, I’m also told that the project might qualify for existing State of Michigan and federal grants, once some initial work is done, and a plan for keeping it running is in place. I know it’s optimistic, but is it possible to think that we might be able to raise $100,000 within the community if we coordinate a year of fundraising activities?

But, we don’t just need to raise the money to see the repairs made – we need a plan that carries us into the future, ensuring that the Freighthouse, once opened, stays opened. We need to figure out how we’re going to pay for someone to manage the space and keep the electricity on. A necessary first step, I’m thinking, is that the Friends of the Freighthouse need to call people together for a big brainstorming session. (Maybe it could take place at the Brewery, right before the April 5 fundraiser.) We need everyone in town to get involved. We need our EMU Business School faculty, we need our local entrepreneurs, we need our arts community, and we need our City leaders. We need everyone to get on the same page and make this a priority.

We need the Freighthouse because it sets us apart as a community. We need it because we need a place to hold our winter farmers’ markets and our community dances. We need someplace for people to get married. We need a place for public meetings. We need a place to hold our debates and our elections… I’m reluctant to volunteer for something else, but I’ll pledge this much. If people like the idea of a public meeting on the future of the Freighthouse, I’ll ask some people and see if I can’t put together a group of people to make it happen. I know budgets are tight right now, I know there are other worthy causes, like the public pool, and I know people are stretched for time, but if we’re ever going to move this forward, now’s the time we need to apply some muscle. If we want to save the Freighthouse, we need get moving.

[The attached announcement comes from a 1980 issue of the
Ypsilanti Heritage Foundation Newsletter.

update: Speaking of the Solar City Hall initiative, there have been some developments.

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  1. Ol' E Cross
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    Very well said. I’m deeply disappointed my nearly four-year-old has never made it inside.

  2. Posted February 8, 2008 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I pledge to donate money. It also might be a good idea to simply do some canvassing to raise some money – knocking on doors right here in Ypsi, or maybe even Ann Arbor too. If 5,000 people pledged $10, there’s half your money right there.

    I would also donate a percentage of my store’s sales on a given day – and I’d even hand deliver the records to people in Ypsi.

    Ol’ East – I’m with you…My daughter is 3 months old, and I would LOVE to be able to take her to the Freighthouse on Saturday morning in a year.

  3. egpenet
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    LooseTea made a challenge recently and I offered to match her … but more is needed.

    More is ALSO on the way from The Friends group.

    And, yes, MORE effort, ideas and money IS needed.

    Don’t let this opportunity go by without doing something about it.

    Send contributions to: Bonnie Penet, 108 N. Huron, Ypsilanti, 48197 payable to: Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse. Every penny is tax deductible.

  4. Ypsi Dad
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    What have people been doing without the Freighthouse? Voting has been moved to the Church on River Street. The winter market was dissolved. Some public meetings have moved to EMU. The Brewery has picked up some of the public space slack. What am I missing?

  5. Ypsi Dad
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Would people rent the space, for weddings, dances, etc? Is there a need? If so, how much would they pay? $500? Is that too much? Too little?

    Would someone pay to have the coffee and donut concession, or would that be run by the Freighthouse? We might be able to get some money upfront if we licensed the concession to someone for a year, with the understanding that that they were to provide reasonably priced products, etc.

  6. Pete
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    I’d love to see the Freighthouse back in operation. Even though I’m a broke student, I’m sure I’d be able to dig up a 50 dollar donation assuming theres some kind of drive involved (I did for the solar panel project which is also very cool.) I have absolutely no question that this money can be raised, the same way private citizen donations put solar panels on city hall and setup a free scalable wireless system (kudos!) Just post something here if there’s any way I can help.

  7. YpsiSkippy
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    What about this talked about Zingerman’s enterprise moving into the space?
    I spoke with an employee about the venture and they mentioned a live/work aspect to the business. That wasn’t mentioned here, but the space would be there.

  8. Posted February 8, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I am a big fan of ‘Contribution Jars.’ In Lexington Michigan they set jars on the counters of every store to collect donations to fund their 4th of July fireworks and they end up with a lot of money every year.

    Perhaps we should have permanent contribution containers set up at some of our retailers. We could replace a sign with whatever goal we are trying for.

    I think it is more likely to get 10 spur of the moment $5.00 donations then one written out and mailed $50.00 donation.

  9. Suzie
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Yes, people would hold weddings and events there, and they would pay whatever the rate was (plus inflation) or is (comparable sites market rates). I don’t remember what the fee was, but our wedding *was* there… for all the community reasons that Mark mentioned. (We didn’t want to have it in some random hall, we wanted a place that meant something to us.)

    Also, you’ll be pleased to know that nobody fell through the floorboards during our wedding.

  10. Kathy
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    My wedding reception was held at the Frieghthouse over seven years ago! It was a perfect setting for our gathering. I would love to see more activity there! Count me in!

  11. egpenet
    Posted February 8, 2008 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    We received the check from Teaspout this evening for $100.00 … thank you so much. I will match that when and if 5 blog readers send $50 to Bonnie Pent at 108 N. Huron, Ypsilanti, MI 48197 … made payable to Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse. All contributions are tax deductible.

    But why limit your contributions? It’s tax time! And GWB is sending you free money in May. So, in anticipation of the stagflatrion blues bribe GWB is offering … give all of it to the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.

    Seriously … above articles are close to correct, that a full restoration will be in excess of $250K.

    But be apprised that the Friends are well organized, havee a grant application in as we speak for a $30K state grant, are looking for more grants, and have both a stretegic plan and business plan in the works. The city is on board. And the RAC has contributed advice and counsel. We ALL want the Freighthouse to come back full flower.

    As I have blogged before, there is a whole list of in-need areas in the city. Rutherford Pool, Senior Center, other parks and other facilities. The Rutherford Pool is a great resource and is a close in-need priority to the Freighthouse. But I am of the opinion that the Freighthouse would benefit more Ypsilantians and bring in more people and tourism dollars if it were restored and operating full tilt.

    Come’on bloggers … if I see the checks come in, I will make my committed pledge … and if more comes in than I expect, I will inform the blog and solicit more matching donors. I know tax time is April 15 … and I know GWB’s checks won’t come till May … but where else can you spend local and KEEP it local other than Ypsilanti’s unique Freighthouse? (Answer: Downtown Ypsilanti … shop local, of course! Trick Question.)

    Thanks, again, Teaspout!

  12. Posted February 9, 2008 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Greetings all,

    I’m the fellow organizing the April 5 benefit for the Freighthouse.

    If anyone would like to lend a hand, you can reach me through myspace or e-mail

    We’re also looking for additional sponsors, which could be anything from donating services to door prizes to matching pledge stuff (say, pledging $1 for every person who attends, etc.).

    We’d like the event to raise a nice chunk of change for the freighthouse, but, even more, we hope it’ll help spur others in the community to think of creative ways they can contribute, much like the ideas taking shape in this post.

  13. Heather
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I went to a wedding at the freighthouse in 2003. I had hoped to have my own wedding their someday. If I can be of any help please email me.

  14. egpenet
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink


    E-mail Caleb if you can help with the April 5 event, he’ll put you in touch with the FOYF, if you’d like. Thanks for the generous offer.

  15. mark
    Posted March 4, 2008 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    What if we just took it over?

  16. Posted March 6, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m in for $50.

    I was hoping enough could be done that it’d be open this fall, because I’d love to have My wedding there, but alas, I’m sure that won’t happen now.

    Ypsi needs a place that can house that many people.


  17. egpenet
    Posted March 6, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks O’B … that will make 2 $50 contribs in addition to Teacup’s $100. I’ll match the $100 after three more $50 contributions.

    Of course, more is needed.

    The FOYF is waiting on a state grant this month, is applying for a Gneral Mills grant and has their eyes on a Getty Foundation Preservation grant, if allowed to apply. The FOYF be busy!

    We’ll keep everyone informed. See ya’ll on April 5. Yeeeha!

  18. Ypsi dweller
    Posted March 7, 2008 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    The Friends of the Ypsi Freighthouse are going after a new grant. I’m not sure how much it’s for. I just posted about it in the a more recent thread. Perhaps someone will leave more details there. You can find my comment here-

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