Twelve Tribes to open café

Group members buy former Freddy’s on Main Street to turn into restaurant

Oneonta Daily Star (NY)/December 23, 2005
By Amy Ashbridge

Oneonta — After facing opposition from the Oneonta Planning Commission and some community members earlier this year, members of the Twelve Tribes have decided to come to Oneonta and open a cafe.

Bob Racine, a member of the Twelve Tribes community in Ithaca, said he and three others have bought property at 134 Main St. and on Market Street.

The building at 134 Main St. will be turned into a Common Ground Cafe. Racine said there aren’t yet plans for the Market Street property.

"We’d like to work with the city and find out what is needed," Racine said Thursday. "Right now we’re in the process of starting to make plans."

The restaurant will have wraps, salads and other "whole" products, Racine said. It won’t serve liquor.

The building on Main Street is the former Freddy’s, and the Market Street building is the former Oneonta Sales Co. Both had belonged to Efren Rivera.

The sale happened this week, Racine said. Racine said he, his wife, Jill, and Kenneth and Karen Hart of Massachusetts are the new owners.

Over time, Racine said, more families from the Twelve Tribes communities will start to move into the area.

The Twelve Tribes has faced criticism from some because of their actions and beliefs. Some individuals said they have cult-like methods and practices.

"I’m disappointed, but not surprised," said Oneonta resident Alice Lichtenstein. "They view Oneonta and the area as a prime recruiting ground."

Lichtenstein said the Twelve Tribes would be recruiting members from the high school and college students in the area.

"Their clear determination to open in Oneonta is just evidence of what we already know," Lichtenstein said. "They are determined to be in Oneonta because Oneonta is a prime recruiting place."

"They do attract very, very nice people who don’t know what they’re getting into," she said.

The Rev. Gary Bonebrake of Main Street Baptist Church said Oneonta was a wonderful place to live, and he could understand why Twelve Tribes members would want to relocate here.

But as a Christian, he is concerned, Bonebrake added.

Bonebrake said he planned to try to have conversations with members, as he had done so in the past. Some conversations hadn’t been successful, he said, because of conflicting views.

"One of the characteristics of a cult is that we only have the truth," Bonebrake said. "That’s one of the marks of a cult."

This isn’t the first property the Twelve Tribes considered buying in Oneonta. Earlier this year, the organization looked at 175-177 Main St.

"We never didn’t want to go to Oneonta," said Roderick Frandino, a member of the Twelve Tribes community in Cambridge, N.Y. "We like Oneonta."

When members of the Twelve Tribes went before the Oneonta Planning Commission in June, the site-plan review did not receive the commission’s approval.

The review needed four votes for approval and received only three.

Commissioners George Demchak and Ellen Falduto voted against the project, Commissioner David Zummo abstained, and Commissioner Jean Ostrowski was absent from the meeting.

"The reason that those of us who voted against it voted against it was because of the real concerns we had about losing a retail space," Falduto said. "Those things really got lost with the issues that were raised by people."

Falduto said commissioners want to see a mix of businesses in downtown Oneonta.

Commissioners also have since voted against a review to move Catholic Charities into a former retail space, Falduto said.

"For us, we’re in a holding pattern with Main Street," she said.

Demchak also said that he would support this plan because it would be a restaurant opening in a restaurant space.

"I have no problem with them being in Oneonta as business-people," Demchak said Thursday.

Zummo did not return messages left Thursday at his two businesses, the Latte Lounge on Main Street and Sears on South Main Street.

The project does not require a site-plan review for the Main Street building. Freddy’s already had permits for food and beverage, which is the same use that the cafe would have.

"You have a site-plan review when there is a change of use," said Oneonta Code Enforcement Officer Peter Friedman.

Friedman said he hadn’t yet heard what plans for the cafe and restaurant could be.

Twelve Tribes members’ first steps would be to come to him to get permits to make changes to the building, he said.

"I expect to hear from them soon," Friedman said.

Twelve Tribes members would have to come before the planning commission again if there were changes in use or anything else requiring a site-plan review, said Chairman Rob Robinson.

Robinson voted in favor of the project when it came before the commission in June.

Robinson said he believed the city could require a site-plan review if the project was considered controversial.

But Friedman said, "Controversy is not a basis for a site-plan review."

Downtown Developer Jeff House said he thought the cafe could be a nice asset to downtown Oneonta.

"I supported the project originally," House said Thursday. "I still support it."

The cafe and restaurant Twelve Tribes members talk of operating is consistent with what had been in the building before, said Mayor-elect John Nader.

The Market Street property would be different, however.

"The building certainly will have to go through a thorough site-plan review," said Mayor Kim Muller.

Racine said he couldn’t recall what the purchase price was for the two buildings.

A listed number for Rivera had a busy signal for most of the day Thursday.

A clerk in the county real property office said 134 Main St. — Freddy’s — sold for $325,000 in 2001, and 27 Market St. — the former Oneonta Sales Co. — sold for $250,000 in 2001.

There aren’t any concerns about moving into the community and setting up a restaurant and cafe, Frandino and Racine said.

"That’s the greatness of America," Racine said. "There’s room for people that are different."

"We don’t have anything to be ashamed of," he said.

There will always be some people who judge the community because they are different, Frandino said.

"They run a reputable establishment," Nader said. "They’ve encountered no problems."

Nader said he has contacted officials in Ithaca, where the Twelve Tribes also operate a cafe, and was looking for their input.

"Free speech and free enterprise are not just for the people with which we agree," Nader said. "They’re for everybody."

Lichtenstein said she would be starting a public education campaign on the group but encouraged other people to do their own research on the Twelve Tribes and the cafes.

"It’s a very seductive group," she said.

"It’s going to be a pretty cafe. It’s going to have pretty good bread, good coffee and organic soup," Lichtenstein said. "(But) look at your conscience and do your homework."

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