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Posted on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 : 10:09 a.m.

Freighthouse volunteers pushing to open cafe by September in Ypsilanti

By Tom Perkins


Ed Penet, chairman of the Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse board, is shown outside the building.

Tom Perkins | For

The Ypsilanti Freighthouse is inching closer to hosting its first events in the great hall and serving its first cup of coffee to the public in its cafe.

In recent months, the cafe has hosted small meetings for various Ypsilanti groups, and Ed Penet, chairman of the all-volunteer Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse board, is hoping to have it ready for the Heritage Festival in late August.

The Friends took a significant step toward that goal recently in finding a party interested in running the cafe. The city still has to make changes to its management agreement with the Friends board before the board can approve a long-term contract and announce any names, Penet said. But he is pleased that a group with “quite a bit of background and experience” in restaurant management in the area has come forward.

“We’re making progress and now it’s ‘Where do we go from here?’, and operations are the next phase. We’re moving step by step,” Penet said.

He said the cafe will likely open in stages, initially providing coffee and baked goods during Depot Town events. Several food concepts are under consideration, including a “taste of Ypsilanti” menu that would feature food from restaurants throughout the city.

The purpose of the cafe is to complement other businesses instead of competing, Penet said, so the menu it will be unique to the area.

If the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit Rail ever starts rolling, then the café would likely open daily, though it and Freighthouse’s success don’t hinge on the train, Penet said.

“We’re going to proceed whether the train comes or not,” he said. “It doesn’t affect our business plan at all.”


The future cafe in the Freighthouse.

Tom Perkins | For

No timeline is in place for opening the Freighthouse’s great hall, but Penet hopes to see some of the architectural plans simplified to accelerate the process. The city recently sent new drawings to the State Historic Preservation Office for approval. Once they are stamped, new construction can get underway, Penet said.

Like the cafe, the hall will likely see a staged opening.

“It may not be fully decorated and we may have paper napkins instead of cloth napkins at first, but the main thing to get it open,” Penet said. “Once it’s open, we can have events and start making money.”

The Friends are continuing to solicit grants and contributions from local foundations interested in supporting the Freighthouse, and most recently received a $15,000 grant from the MASCO Corporation along with $5,000 worth of equipment.

So far, the Friends pulled in approximately $900,000 through fundraising and grants, and Penet said raising capital will likely be easier with a party interested in running the café.

“Now that we have somebody standing by to be a tenant and operator, I can go to funding sources and say ‘I have an operator’, and that’s what they - the banks - want to know, so I’m excited,” he said.


Tom Perkins | For

The Freighthouse renovation has also received financial support from the city over the years, which the Friends have agreed to pay back as the operation starts making money.

Penet said the Friends continue seeking volunteers - especially those skilled in a trade - to help with construction and cleanup around the Freighthouse. Volunteers recently completed a rain garden on the building’s north end, which has generated excitement among the Friends.

Gutters and piping running the length of the building on each side direct water to the garden. As water collects, it percolates into the earth within 24 hours, which prevents it from running across nearby parking lots and collecting pollutants en route to the river.

“The rain garden is an amazing accomplishment,” Bonnie Penet, Ed Penet’s wife and a Friends board member, said. “The effort that Greg Marker, our volunteer extraordinaire, showed and the number of volunteers who showed up proves what a love for the Freighthouse there is.”



Mon, Jun 27, 2011 : 2:19 p.m.

about time...we are waiting