Blog: Mark Maynard

Mark Maynard publishes the magazine Crimewave USA, puts out records, comics and blogs when others sleep. He is one of the founders of Ypsilanti's popular Shadow Art Fair, co-chair of YpsiVotes, and a member of Ypsilanti's 2020 Task Force on the future of the city. He has a keen interest in economic development and will be writing about why he's enthusiastically chosen to live in Ypsilanti.

Post No. 2

 What's it going to take to open Ypsi's Freighthouse?

There are a lot of things that need to happen in Ypsilanti. A favorite pastime here in town is debating the order in which they need to be addressed. Or, maybe it's more appropriate to say that we fight over it. That's what happens when resources dry up. People, all probably well intentioned, begin to squabble. For every project that takes a step forward, you can bet there's someone in the wings, cursing their good fortune. And, I'm just as guilty of this kind of thinking as anyone.

Recently, I got it into my head that Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center had
perhaps unfairly claimed funds that should have been directed toward the reopening of Ypsilanti's historic Freighthouse. I'm still not confident that there isn't cause to be upset, but I don't think that the protracted online squabble that resulted from my remarks does either group any good.

But I feel passionately about the
Freighthouse. It's my favorite place in the entire 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. It was a magical kind of a place. A handful of other communities out there, I imagine, have public spaces warmed by wood burning stoves, where folks gather 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 wanted 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.

But that little window has been closed for the past several years now, due to repairs that need to be made. Apparently, until they're done, no one will insure the once vital building.

So, when I had an opportunity on my blog not too long ago to argue 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 wasn'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 prevent a private developer from doing anything with in - like turning it into a McDonalds - 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.

The Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse have applied for a $15,000 grant through Hamburger Helper's My Hometown Helper program. In hopes that our project is among those selected this funding cycle, Ypsi residents were being encouraged to leave notes of support on the Hamburger Helper site. We had 272 notes of support by the deadline. If you have a chance, I'd recommend that you go over and read what your neighbors had to say about the historic railroad building, and what it's meant to them. The stories of attending dances and weddings there, going back several generations, are quite touching. If there was ever any question that the Freighthouse was an integral part of our local community, this should erase any doubt.

The $15,000, if we get it, is only a fraction of the close to $400,000 in repairs that have been estimated, but it would be a fantastic step in the right direction, and, hopefully, it would encourage all of us to do more. Already, Café Luwak and Sidetrack have stepped forward to offer a percentage of their sales on certain days to the building's rehabilitation. And, the Full Freight Banjo fundraiser that was held a few weeks ago brought in over $3,000. It may not much in the whole scheme of things, but it's a great first step, especially when you consider that the last big, coordinated fundraising effort was February 19, 2005 – over three years ago – when the previous incarnation of Friends of the Freighthouse held their Preservation Ball.

I think I speak for most everyone when I say that we can't go another three years without our Freighthouse. I know it might sound like hyperbole, but the success of our town hinges on this beautiful, old community gathering space. When it's up and running, it illustrates all that's good about our City, and we can't afford to lose that now.

As I understand it, close to $400,000 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 beginning right now?

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. 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.

I have to think that there's a business model that would work. I recently talked with two caterers in Ann Arbor. Both confirmed that our area is sorely lacking when it comes to venues that can accommodate 300 and more people. They assured me that we'd have no shortage of groups offering to pay daily rental rates of $1,000 for the Freighthouse. If we had a few events like this a month, I'm thinking, it would go a long way toward keeping the lights on for things like the Saturday morning farmers market.

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.

As for the Riverside Arts Center, I don't begrudge them that they got the MEDC funds that had previously been committed to the development of the Water Street parcel. Their $600,000 elevator project is a worthy cause. The elevator, when completed, will allow disabled visitors to get to the upper floors of the building, and that's important. It's certainly better that the money went there instead of being lost when the Water Street project stalled. I just wish that other groups in the community, such as those supporting the Freighthouse and the Rutherford Pool, which also desperately needs work done, were given an opportunity to compete for the funds.

It's complicated, and, as I said at the start, there aren't really any bad guys here. No one took money for personal gain. It just appears as though a decision was made to help one entity, one with a proven track record, when other facilities in need of repair, like the Freighthouse and public pool, weren't given the option.

As I understand it, it's too late to move the money from the elevator at this point, even if we wanted to and thought that State would accept it, so all we can really do is wish them luck raising what they need to complete the job, and hope, once their project is completed, that they do everything possible to help the Freighthouse along by offering assistance, hosting fundraisers, etc. And all of us in the meantime need to do a better job of sharing information. If we haven't started to do so already, we need to get the directors of our local non-profits and various "friends" groups together at least once a quarter to discuss what they're doing and where there might be synergies.

Decisions such as these, especially during poor economic times such as these, need to be made transparent. And there has to be ample opportunity for community input.  To avoid doing this again in the future, we need better coordination between Council, City Administration, and the various groups within the community.

It may be a lot to ask of a City that, for some unfathomable reason, has not only a Chamber of Commerce, but three separate business associations, but we desperately need to better coordinate decision-making so issues like this do not arise in the future.

And hopefully, one day, we can have all of these meetings at the Freighthouse. It would be perfect.

If you have a few bucks, please consider sending them to:

Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse
P.O. Box 970919
Ypsilanti, MI 48197-0919.

(The Friends of the Ypsilanti Freighthouse is a 501(c)(3) organization)

Or, better yet, think of something that you can do to raise money. The Fullfreight Banjo fundraiser a few weeks ago raised over $3,000, and it was essentially the work of a single motivated Ypsilantian (and all the musicians he knew). He took something that he knew and he found a way to apply it for the good of the Freighthouse and the community. Surely you've got an idea that might bring in a few hundred dollars for a good cause.