After six months, Open Works' maker space is making an impact

The mission statement for Baltimore's Open Works center describes it as an "incubator for Baltimore's creative economy."

When I stopped by this week, about six months after the artisan and manufacturing space opened at 1400 Greenmount Ave., I found the incubator has emerged as a beehive of homegrown industry.

One large area on the first floor bustled with students from three Baltimore high schools. In another part of the cavernous building, two artists/makers operated industrial sewing and embroidery machines. A few doors away, a 3-D printer employed cornstarch-based plastic material to grind out little objects.

On the ground floor of Open Work's headquarters, Chris Priest, an electrical engineering graduate from Morgan State University, worked an industrial saw.

"I make tables and bookcases," Priest said. "But today I'm making a yoni steaming bench for holistic health products." He sells his pieces on the Etsy web marketplace.

Nearby, some 54 artisans have rented work spaces divided up in cubicles. They pay $125 a month rent and have access to Open Work's welding and electrical equipment, machines and saws, paint room and sewing shop.

They are also "members" of Open Works, paying a monthly membership fee. The place is often described as a YMCA for workers.

Some workers here make drones, or acoustical guitars. There's a textile artist, a landscape architect and a group constructing state-of-the-art wood stoves.

Open Works, a project of the nonprofit Baltimore Arts Reality Corp., is a curious endeavor with high ideals. Situated a few blocks east of Penn Station, alongside the AMTRAK right of way, the building once housed a Railway Express Agency office.

Like many other structures in this neighborhood, it was a grungy piece of real estate a few years ago, but now has been given a new purpose.

Greenmount Avenue between 22nd and Preston streets has enjoyed a determined renaissance over the past five years. Several new projects are giving renewed energy to the Barclay, Greenmount West and Johnston Square neighborhoods.

Open Works is one of these.

"We are a deeply inclusive and diverse space on a lot of levels," said Will Holman, Open Works director.

That was reflected in the youth design lab this past week, which drew students from the nearby Baltimore Design School, as well as others from Patterson High School and Polytechnic Institute.

Opens Works also recently helped sponsor Baltimore's inaugural Drone Grand Prix, an event organized by one of its resident businesses, Global Air Media. For that event, about 400 came to the Open Works building. At the dead-end court of Belvidere Street behind the building, drone pilots participated in this tournament.

Holman said Open Works also has a goal of being a gathering space for the Greenmount-area neighborhoods and is making plans for more public happenings. For instance, the center will launch a farmers market in June with the Two Moons Food Group, he said.

Open Works might be compared to a well equipped basement workspace or a small factory's machine shop. Here artisans turn out the goods and products they cannot easily make at home — and enjoy the camaraderie of other creative types.

It's also a place where members of the community can learn how to use the machines and equipment to sharpen their craft skills.

"Our mission is to make tools, technology and the knowledge to use them accessible to all," said Holman.

"We also have a broader mission: How do we rebuild Baltimore's manufacturing economy from the bottom up?" he said. "We hope we can build a culture of prosperity beyond these walls."

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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