The Depot Coffee House has been a hub in Hopkins for 21 years. The renovated train depot sits on the conjunction of Excelsior Boulevard, Highway 169 and the Cedar Lake Trail.
It’s long been a bike destination and local hangout spot, but at its core it’s one of the oldest youth-run hangouts in Hopkins. Since its creation, everything about the Depot, from the coffee to the local music, has been run by a youth board made up of students from Hopkins and Minnetonka high schools and other area schools.
“It really is empowering as a student, because it’s hard to find student leadership roles even at student council,” says Samantha Thomas, a newer youth board member.
“It was really fulfilling to find a space and a group where I can actually make an impact,” says Sam Randall.
Board coordinator John Guertin, second from left, chats with student leaders during a recent meeting.
Over the past year, the 150-person music venue, now called the Freight Room, has undergone a rebranding. The new logos, interior design and new website were designed by board members and by one of the business marketing classes at Hopkins High School.
The youth board acted much like a professional design client for the class. It’s all part of an effort by the youth board to put the Freight Room on the map.
Though there’s been music at the Depot for its entire life, “one of the things we’ve heard a lot is, ‘Oh man, I didn’t know this was a music venue,’” says John Guertin, the youth board’s coordinator.
The youth board designed a new Freight Room website. “Before, the Depot website was both the coffee aspect and the booking and music aspect, all in one,” says Randall, “but with this we wanted to separate them.”
The Depot’s history is a unique example of a youth-run organization becoming a pillar of its community. In 1994, the original youth leaders—a group of Hopkins students—got together to answer a question: “If young people could help design our cities, could help design our spaces, where would they want to go and where can they thrive?” asked Matt Nelson, the former chairperson of the original youth board. “What would that look like?”
Nelson, who now runs presente.org, a national human rights organization, was one of the original writers of the concert paper to get funding for the Depot in 1994. Their vision was for a place for youth to go that youth had complete control over.
“When given the opportunity, when given the support, when given the trust, the young people can really lead our communities and our cities into a better direction,” Nelson says.
The original youth board came up with goals, three “pillars” for the Depot’s mission to be built on: community unity, student experience, and making the space free of drugs or alcohol.
Their mission statement laid it all out simply, and it has remained unchanged for over 20 years: “to provide a place of community and learning in which student involvement and youth development are encouraged in a chemically-free environment.”
The youth board founders received support from the City of Hopkins, the school board and the chemical health commission, Nelson says. They then searched for more than a year to find the perfect location.
“At some point people fell in love with the Depot,” Nelson says. The board decided on the freight train depot built circa 1902 for its well-connected location and its long history. “We wanted something to last for generations and generations of high school students to be able to own.”
Music was part of the Depot from the very beginning. The original board decided the Depot would be part coffee shop, part music venue.
“Some of the students wanted to learn about building design, or business marketing, or coffee roasting, or music,” Nelson says.
This music venue was especially important to young musicians. Bars and larger venues can be intimidating. Nelson says, “It’s a place that really cares about the artists and cares about their development.”
“One of the things that drew me to the Depot was just that welcoming environment that’s given by that mission statement,” Samantha Thomas says.
She has been on the board for only a few months, and has already picked up the workings of the sound booth. “I’m not a musician, I’m not a performer,” she admits. “It was a completely new world to me.”
While in school, Thomas says, it’s hard to find student leadership roles. At the youth board at the Depot, everyone works as equals and gets hands-on experience.
“I learned in a couple of days how a gig is run and how a set works,” Thomas says. “It’s something I would never have experienced in my lifetime without this opportunity.”
Sam Randall adds, “It can be kind of difficult making a space like this that’s not connected to a school. It’s kind of hard to bring crowds in like that.”
The challenge is worth it, though.
“I don’t feel like I’m being spoon-fed everything. I can actually make my own decisions independently.”
The youth board today has stayed true to creating a chemical-free environment. In the 1990s, students whose peers and families struggled with chemical abuse decided the best way to help would be to make the Depot a chemical-free place without alienating anyone. They’ve had to adapt with the times, though.
“There’s all this new stuff, like vaping,” Thomas says. “Creating a nicotine-free environment is pretty difficult.”
The events in the Freight Room are as varied as the community around the Depot. Musicians on Fridays and Saturdays are quite the range of local and young artists.
Randall is a musician familiar with playing on stages, but through the youth board, he’s learning about the back end of booking and setting up shows. “I booked a Minneapolis teen band called Sonic Sea Turtles; they go to one of the private music schools in Minneapolis.
“On the second and fourth Saturday mornings of each month, there’s a folk string band that plays,” Randall says.
Every first and third Friday of each month, starting at 4 p.m., the Freight Room holds its open-mic nights. The board held open-mic fundraisers even before they acquired the Depot in 1998.
“You get everything from rap to techno to indie to rock,” Thomas says. “It can introduce you to some really great artists that are local.”
The Freight Room is also reservable for events. They host grad parties, recitals, baby showers, birthday parties and more, Randall says. “I’ve noticed more day events and more people renting the space” since the redesign, he says.
The youth board also holds their own youth nights in the space. “It’s a free event, and it’ll usually have a theme behind it. We’ve done game night, or D&D night,” Randall says.
“Well, one of my favorite events was fashion night, which we held in April,” Thomas remembers. “It was so cool seeing all these different people from different schools, not really knowing each other, coming together and just bonding over some clothes.”
The Freight Room will continue to evolve. Matt Nelson, the first youth board chairperson, remarks how there are few music venues that have stayed open for more than 20 years. “Creating a way that you can have that staying power for another 20-plus years, I think the Depot has that formula,” he says.