Can Raurfest reinvent the Freight Depot?

Downtown's oldest building hosts an eclectic musical bill

Look closely or you might miss the Georgia Railroad Freight Depot in the heart of Downtown. Tucked away off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, right behind the former World of Coca-Cola building and a surface parking lot, the 146-year-old brick building sits quietly in the shadow of Underground Atlanta. The former-rail-stop-turned-events-space has an unassuming presence behind its wrought-iron fences. Built in 1869, it's also Downtown's oldest building, an unlikely choice for reinvention of any kind.

Since the building's restoration in 1981, state officials have used the oblong building to host a wide variety of events: lavish political galas, nonprofit fundraisers, huge weddings, and blowout bar mitzvahs. On Fri., June 26, the Freight Depot will play host to the second annual Raurfest, the festival organized by 19-year-old rising songwriter Raury, and bring a whole new type of crowd to the 19th-century building.

The lineup for Raurfest's return includes performances from a range of hip-hop and indie soul artists including Big K.R.I.T., Two-9, India Shawn, and more to be announced. Justice Baiden, one of Raury's managers and a founder of Love Renaissance, the production company behind Raurfest, had initially never considered the Freight Depot as a potential music venue growing up in Atlanta. But when Baiden first checked out the massive space, he immediately saw the allure of the location to host the 1,500-person festival.

"It was almost like a raw canvas," says Baiden, who wants to fill the place with flowers and other nature-inspired decorations to juxtapose with the building's blue-collar aesthetic. "It seemed almost like an art project," he adds. "It didn't feel corporate. It didn't feel tied down. It just felt very industrial. That was the look we were going for, something that felt not like an average music venue, that's why we got drawn to it."

Baiden likens the Freight Depot to a "New York City apartment." Except much, much bigger. 12,000-square-feet bigger. The Freight Depot's cavernous interior features exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and 18-foot-high beams. The original barn-style wooden doors are still used to allow varying amounts of natural light inside the room, depending on a given event's needs. Triangular sound panels dampen the room's natural echo, while soundproof glass panels along the building's north façade silence the chugging MARTA and CSX trains.

Raurfest won't be the first time musicians have performed inside the Freight Depot. Kinisha Perry, marketing director with Distinctive Catering & Events, the third-party company that currently handles events inside the state property, says artists such as Nicki Minaj, Ciara, Tamar Braxton, and Kelly Rowland have performed in the building. But Perry says those sets were a part of larger gay pride events taking place at the 1,800-person venue, which has the ability to be configured in multiple ways. "We can do it all," Perry says. "I would love to get a country artist, local or national, because country music has such a hardcore following. I'd love for this venue to do all types of events whether it's country or hip-hop or gospel. ... We really don't have a lane to stay in here."

Perry says the Freight Depot has struggled to overcome some of Downtown's long-standing negative perceptions. "There's a stigma of being right next to Underground," she says.

But Perry also believes the forthcoming changes to the tired 12-acre tourism site could change that image. If the city can close on its pending deal, a South Carolina-based developer could then follow through on plans to build a grocery store, hotel, retail shops, and residential units.

Baiden also understands the concerns about Downtown, yet sees the potential of the neighborhood's future. The effort started last year with the inaugural Raurfest held at Pop ATL print shop on Mitchell Street in Castleberry Hill. The unorthodox choice of the Freight Depot continues Raury's tradition for the nontraditional.

"Having it Downtown is key, especially for the early moments of Raurfest, because Downtown events aren't like this," Baiden says. "I don't expect people who write off Downtown to understand it. Atlanta is a growing city. Hopefully, one day, we can be just like a New York. Downtown has a lot of corporations in it. But it's growing. It just needs time."

The Freight Depot will continue to be home to an array of different events. But Raurfest could be the key to changing people's perceptions about the historic venue, known more for Nathan Deal speeches than a Trinidad Jame$ performance, thanks to the rising teenage songwriter.

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