BERKELEY — Steve Baker has an all-or-nothing challenge on his hands to oversee fundraising of the last remaining $2 million to finish the downtown Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse. But Baker practiced law for about a decade and has played in a number of bands over the years, so he's lived with uncertainty before.
Earlier this month, an anonymous donor — no amount of guessing or prodding or reporter tricks will get Baker to say who — came forward with a challenge: Get your supporters to kick in the last $2 million for the $11.3 million performing arts center and teaching facility, and an additional $1 million is yours for the keeping.
"If we raise $1.9 million the deal is off. It's an all-or-nothing proposition. That's what makes it really interesting," said Baker, executive director of Freight & Salvage, a nonprofit organization that has been hosting about 300 shows a year from small, dark and cozy space further down Addision Street near San Pablo Avenue for the past 20 years.
The Freight's new home — under construction in a former body shop at 2020 Addision Street in downtown — is scheduled to open in fall 2009. It will have 440 seats — double the capacity of the current location — a state-of the-art sound system, a cafe, six classrooms, a 50-seat music lounge, a retail music outlet and a folk music resource center with books and photographs and club memorabilia.
"The Freight has been an integral part of the arts community of the Bay Area since 1968," Baker said. "The new facility is a testament to the thousands of people who value folk music and want to help ensure its future."
The larger performance spaces and classrooms in the new "green" building, with its energy efficient lighting and insulating living roof, will give the venue the opportunity to bring music to a much greater audience.
"When it's finished, on any given night, there could be 1,500 people enjoying cultural events in that area, at the Freight, Berkeley Rep, the Aurora Theatre, the Jazzschool and the movie theaters," said Michael Caplan, manager of the office of economic development for the city of Berkeley.
The 18,000-square-foot Freight building will join other nearby nonprofits, including the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theatre, the Jazzschool, the East Bay Media Center and the planned Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the Magnes Museum in the city's burgeoning art's district.
But first, the Freight must raise the remaining $2 million.
Musician Danny Carnahan and investor Warren Hellman, the force behind the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, are co-chairs of the New Home Campaign, which has raised $8.3 million, including a $1 million grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a $1.16 million grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment. But officials say they will also raise money by reaching out to everyone who has ever bought a ticket or seen a show at the folksy music venue.
"We went to every segment of our support group to ask them to step up and make the biggest gift they have ever given to the Freight and people are inspired by the challenge," said Susan Lefkowich, the venue's director of development.
The Freight & Salvage goes back four decades, but it has humble beginnings.
In 1968, Nancy Owens founded the club in an old furniture store on San Pablo Avenue, tacking the word "coffeehouse" on to the original name of the business.
"It just seemed like a great name," the 66-year-old Owens said recently from her Alameda home. "Here we were a bunch of people who did music, who did a little bit or this and a little bit of that."
Almost immediately, musicians and kindred souls gathered in the space and filled the room with song, Owens said. And there was abounding community spirit and connections. Volunteers baked cakes and cookies and brewed teas and coffees on a small stove.
The furniture was mismatched tables and chairs left over from the furniture store and bought at garage sales and thrift shops. Players picked guitars and plucked banjos and the Freight's impact grew, she said. "By the end of the first year, the place had presented talent from all over the world — Mexican, Chinese, and Celtic music, bluegrass, acoustic, Delta blues and jazz," Owens said.
By 1972, the place was the hub of a growing folk and old-time music scene so remarkable that traditional Appalachian folk's performer Mike Seeger documented it with the album Berkeley Farms, Freight officials said. It was a living room away from home for folksingers and a venue for new and experimental music.
In 1983, it was formally organized as a nonprofit called the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music. Five years later, it moved from the old furniture store to 1111 Addison St. But the venue has challenges. Because it's in a residential neighborhood, the club can fill the room to only half-capacity on weeknights, Baker said.
"(At the new location) there is the potential to more than double (attendance)," Baker said.
Owens said she has heard concerns that the Freight will lose its intimacy when it moves into its new and larger home.
"It will change and that intimacy will be a little bit different but there is such a tradition and such a strong community involvement from people who love folk music that I think it's going to have its own flavor which will have an intimacy of its own type," she said.
For more information, visit www.freightandsalvage.org.