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The Baltimore Sun

After six years, Ugly Mug in Eldersburg still taking shape ... slowly

For the past six years, the building at 6228 Sykesvillle Road (Route 32), in Eldersburg, once known as Nathan Henry's Restaurant, has stood empty. But it hasn't been forgotten.

The nondenominational Journey Church Community has been planning to turn the site into the Ugly Mug, which organizers describe as a not-for-profit coffee/cafe/concert house for the community, especially young adults.

After six years of fundraising, campaigns, setbacks and road blocks, proponents say the goal is still alive — and in fact may be close to reality.

"It has been a six-year, painstaking journey," Steve Lowe, lead pastor of Journey, said of the Ugly Mug project. "It's amazing this vision is still alive. It's been a challenge."

From the beginning, money has been an issue. In order for Journey to purchase the property and complete renovations, $358,000 had to be raised. But over the last six years, only $85,000 has been collected — and 95 percent of that has come from Journey, Lowe said.

"We've encountered challenges raising a bunch of money to start a business," Lowe said. "It has been really drawn out, with one challenge after another. The Journey is tapped out."

But none of the money Journey has raised so far has been put into the building, Lowe said. Any renovations done to the site have been made by the building's owner. Money spent by Journey was for researching, developing and marketing the Ugly Mug concept, he said.

Regarding the lack of donations from the community, Lowe said, "There are a lot of different theories out there, and the economy tops the list. Over the last six year period, there have been ebbs and flows of momentum."

After numerous discussions with the building's owner three years ago, Journey at one point looked for alternative locations for the Ugly Mug, Lowe said.

"We looked around for nine months and found nothing comparable in size, layout or location, all things important to the project," Lowe said. So they stuck with the Nathan Henry's site. "We think the location is ideal. It is the center of town."

Last month, Lowe announced that the project was switching gears a bit — that the Journey will not buy the property, but will rent it instead, after owner Raymond Jordan performs renovations, Lowe said.

Lowe said the church has also had to deal — and is still dealing with — misconceptions about the coffee house and its purpose. Since it would be owned and operated by Journey, many believe the Ugly Mug is a church thing, he said.

Others think it would be a Christian coffee house full of Christ and religion, Lowe said.

"It is not a Journey thing. It is not a church thing. It is not a Christian coffee house," Lowe said. "It is not going to be that.

"It will be a place for the community to be and go to be socially responsible and environmentally responsible," Lowe said. "People will drink fair trade coffee here and hear great music. It will be a legitimate place to come and hang out in a cool environment."

Despite the six-year struggle and the lack of community donations, Lowe believes the idea of the Ugly Mug — a coffee house serving coffee drinks, breakfast, lunch and a light dinner, as well as a concert hall where live music can be performed and teens can hang out — is still valid.

"We're always evaluating if it is the best way to serve the community and end the epidemic of 'nothing to do,' " Lowe said. "There is nothing like it here in Eldersburg.

Regarding the project's evolution over six years, he said, "The need is at least as great, if not greater, for a place like this. The need is every bit as big as it was back then."

Sherri Hosfeld Joseph, owner of Birdies' Cafe, a coffee house on Main Street in Westminster, also believes that there is a need for more coffee houses in the area.

"I think that there is always a need in any community for an institution like a coffee house," Joseph said. "The tradition goes back centuries as a place for intellects and artists to meet and exchange ideas. Now more than ever, we need it."

Her business, which opened two years ago, attracts an "eclectic group" of all ages.

"Everybody needs a place to go," Joseph said. "It (a coffee house) is a different feel than going to a restaurant. It is different than going to a bar."

Teen-oriented centers have also been conducted in Westminster — with varied results. Westminster United Methodist Church opened "The Bait Shop" in 2008 to offer all youths — regardless of religious affiliation — a place to hang out after school. The building featured a computer lab, a music area with a full drum set and guitars, a foosball table and television.

"It was a safe place for youth to go after school," said Sherri Haines, administrative assistant for Westminster UMC. "It had a little bit of everything."

But attendance dropped off over the years, and the Bait Shop closed last year. Today the facility is used for the church's youth group activities.

"There is hope to use it for more community-oriented events," Haines said. "We hope to get back into it at some point."

Lowe believes the Ugly Mug could offer something for everyone, with a mixture of live music and other events.

"It would be a place for the whole community to have something to do and come together," Lowe said.

Lowe says there are pluses and minuses to the new plan to rent the facility rather than own it. In a web posting at the Ugly Mug's Facebook page, he wrote, "This plan is exciting because it potentially gets The Ugly Mug open with far less upfront costs and operating costs. We would only need to raise an additional $65,000. ... However, with this plan, we would be waiting on other people to complete the renovations."

He said he remains hopeful, and committed to the project.

"Hopefully, that will work," he said of the rental plan. "And, if that does work, it will be really good for us. We can't do another six years. We're really hoping to see progress this fall."

For more information on the Ugly Mug project, go to http://theuglymug.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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