Southport RR depot coffee shop plans still sidetracked
Plans to open a coffee shop at the Southport Railroad Station have been percolating since last spring, but state officials have yet to put the order through.
Local resident Josh Fried wants to open the shop, to be called "Cafe Society," in the tenant space at the station, which has been vacant since the depot went through a $2.1 million historically accurate restoration following a 2008 fire. Before the fire, the space was occupied by ArtSpace, a gallery that has since moved downtown.
The restored station building reopened in February 2009.
"I designed this whole concept around the building," the French Culinary Institute-trained Fried said at last week's Parking Authority meeting. Local officials hope a face-to-face meeting with the state will answer any questions and get the project on track.
A major sticking point for state Department of Transportation officials was the lack of a formal "request for proposals" to find a tenant for the station site. The DOT must give final approval for the lease; the town's Parking Authority already supports the proposal.
James Walsh, Fried's lawyer, said he's put together a packet for the state that includes numerous newspaper articles about the Parking Authority's quest to fill the space.
And Parking Authority Manager Cindy Placko said prior to Fried's interest, she had shown the building to at least 10 other people, and only one person made a proposal. However, she said, after about six months, that coffee shop proposal failed to come to fruition. The Open Book Shop leased space on a temporary basis in November 2009. Local real estate agencies were also notified of the vacancy and signs were posted on the building advertising its availability.
"I want to be clear with everybody," Walsh said. "Mr. Fried is not afraid of an RFP process. In this economy, we don't think anyone is willing to spend the money he is willing to spend and put a permanent cafe there."
He said Fried has spent almost a year on the plan "and we'd like to get it moving one way or another." Fried has spent about $20,000 so far on design and legal fees.
Another issue raised in letters from the state concerned historic preservation of the rebuilt depot. In order to open the bistro, Fried is required by town Health Department regulations to install a tile floor and cover some of the wood molding. However, Walsh said, that could all be removed and Fried is not averse to providing a security deposit that would cover that work.
Walsh said state Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, has offered to intervene to move the process forward. "Sen. McKinney feels he might be able to get a meeting with there here in the next few weeks," he said. "We're trying to figure out a way to expedite this without having to do a full RFP."
Initially, the cafe would offer things like coffee, croissants and muffins, Fried said, and if that proves successful, the offerings would expand to "bistro fare."