Amarr Jacox-Rowe, a senior at Transition Plus school in St. Louis Park, finds that writing poetry helps him to channel his emotions.

Several years ago, he worked up the courage to read his works at an open mic night at the Depot Coffee House in Hopkins. Since then, he's returned many times and has discovered an audience for his writing.

"People would come up to me afterward and say, 'Hey, that one poem hit home for me,' " he said after a reading last Tuesday, as a saxophone player took the stage.

That has motivated him to improve his writing, to make it tighter and more relatable.

That kind of experience is part of what the youth-run Depot offers, he said; it's a place to try out new work or to experiment with one's art form.

Jacox-Rowe attributes that to an open, supportive atmosphere. "A guitarist got off the stage a moment ago and the sound guy said, 'Welcome to the family,' " he said. "If you need the support or to refresh your roots or just want to have fun, this is the environment to do it."

A coffee shop that doubles as an entertainment venue and trailhead, the Depot is a place to sit and study or to take in a show or simply to pick up a bike part. It opened in a vintage train depot in 1998 as a chemical-free hangout for youth.

The Depot hosts concerts, open mic nights, film screenings, art shows and other special events. Through the years, it has nurtured talents of all stripes, onstage and off.

A board made up of 10 students and one adult makes decisions about Depot goings-on, said Ted Duepner, a project coordinator and longtime Depot employee.

"I've been able to work with students who elevate what the Depot does," he said. "There have been some real challenges. Most are very worthwhile. There are always places where we could do more or do better."

Board members work as baristas. For most of them, it's their first job. "It's a nice way to get a 360-degree view of how the Depot works," which helps them to own it, Duepner said.

"When a student says, 'I just really wish we could do this,' they're so used to hearing no, they think it's complicated," but he's all for giving them a shot at planning an event or whatever the project may be.

The place fills a void, particularly in the local music scene, as fewer and fewer venues are producing all-ages shows because they're not profitable enough, Duepner said.

Music wasn't the original focus of the Depot, but it became apparent early on that "it brings in the most youth and it sustains the programming side," he said.

A number of musicians who played at the Depot early in their careers have become big names. Artists like John Mark Nelson, Kristoff Krane, Desdamona, Carnage and Toussaint Morrison have all performed there, Duepner said.

Developing skills, talents

Depot board chair Alex R. Sigmundik, a Blake High School senior, started hanging out there as a seventh-grader.

Part of what he likes is its "relaxed atmosphere where everyone can be accepted," he said. It "allows for so many different types of expression and art and social interaction."

Sigmundik's handiwork can be found all over the shop, which is characterized by repurposed furniture, eclectic seating areas, railroad signs and lots of artwork. He's painted murals on the exterior of a shed and on the walls of the Depot's restrooms. He has also exhibited his original artwork inside the Depot.

He said the board experience has been invaluable to him as an entrepreneur. He plans to open a nonprofit bike shop in the next year. It was Duepner, an avid cyclist, who got him into biking in the first place, he said.

Sigmundik is feeling confident about beginning new ventures after he graduates from high school and credits the Depot for much of that. "I was respected as a kid when I first got involved," he said. "It helped me to develop a self."

Ryan Hansen, a Wayzata High School senior and the board's vice chair, echoed that. He helps organize film screenings at the Depot and is president of the Wayzata film club at his school.

In his college application essays, Hansen, who wants to study architecture, wrote about the Depot and his part in it. "It's a nexus for people to come in and share ideas and have fun," he said, adding that he's most productive when he's there.

Some of his friends come and play music at the Depot and other friends will hang out. "It truly does feel like our own place," he said.

'A good environment'

A new board member, Hopkins Junior High ninth-grader Maria Vargas, said the Depot has already drawn her out.

Early on, she was shy about meeting new people. Now, she doesn't mind talking to whoever comes in the door. "It's a good environment to just be who you are," she said.

Also at the Depot, she feels comfortable dressing however she likes. "I have a quirky style and I'm not afraid to show it."

A.J. Evers, 20, a local rapper who performed a few original songs at the open mic last Tuesday, said the Depot has been a big part of his growth as an artist.

He was "super nervous" the first time stepped onstage four years ago. "It was the biggest thing for me when I was 16, to say I've rapped live," said Evers.

Although his debut wasn't perfect, he says, it gave him the courage to continue to share his songs. Since then, he's performed in venues all over the place, he said.

A history of the place

The idea for the Depot came out of a forum on chemical health back in the 1990s, says Fran Hesch, a former Hopkins City Council member who helped found the coffee shop. Students had the idea to transform the building, which was then a county storage space, into a youth-oriented hub, with a coffee shop as the anchor business.

The old depot was totally renovated in a four-year community effort, with volunteer labor and donations.

The place had high-minded ideals from the start. Students wanted to create a place where everyone would be welcome, with no cliques; where kids could hang out in a safe environment, away from the pressures to do drugs or drink, Hesch said.

"The idea was, people would come in for the coffee, but stay for the community," she said.

These days, the Depot continues to strive for that. A mark of its success is that former board members always come back to see how it is doing, she said.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at