Construction to begin on city's newest 'makerspace'

"The way we're going to rebuild manufacturing in the city is from the grassroots up."

Baltimore Arts Realty Corp. will begin a major renovation Tuesday on a Greenmount Avenue warehouse with the goal of filling the building with the hum of craftsmen, artists and other small manufacturers.

The $11 million Open Works project would transform the 34,000-square-foot building in Greenmount West with a cafe, computer classrooms, textile, metal and wood workrooms and state-of-the-art 3-D printers and laser machines. BARCO, a nonprofit developer, also hopes to offer space to job training groups, host networking events and partner with nearby schools and universities.

"We really think we can see a lot of small businesses coming out of here," said Will Holman, general manager for Open Works. "The way we're going to rebuild manufacturing in the city is from the grass roots up."

The project is the city's latest so-called "makerspace" — a new buzzword for what is basically a communal workshop where users share tools and real estate they couldn't afford individually.

The concept is not new. The Baltimore Clayworks pottery center, for instance, dates to 1980.

But new technology, bigger markets made accessible by the Internet and the rise of a do-it-yourself culture have brought new attention to the idea. For-profit and nonprofit models have popped up across the country, including in Baltimore.

Their focus ranges from jewelry making to welding and they include organizations like the Station North Tool Library, which lends out about 2,000 tools, offers classes in skateboard making and homecare, and has grown to 1,000 members since opening less than three years ago.

The scale of BARCO's $11 million Open Works project, which is backed with $800,000 in state funding and grants from some of the city's largest philanthropic groups, and its focus on job training and business incubation suggests the movement is pushing into a new arena.

"It's broadening the conversation," said Sarah McCann, Baltimore Clayworks executive director.

Started by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, BARCO got interested in building a makerspace because it saw an opportunity to create an amenity catering to recent graduates and other members of the creative class, keeping them from fleeing to bigger arts hubs like New York or Los Angeles and staunching the flow of people from the city, said Laurens "Mac" MacLure, BARCO's managing director.

At a basic level, bringing down real estate and equipment costs — what MacLure called "democratizing the forces of production" — also supports small businesses, boosting economic development.

The group chose the 1400 Greenmount Avenue building because it wanted to extend the development happening in Station North — the group is also working on the Motor House on North Avenue — as well as to allow tenants to tap into the tax credits available to businesses in the district.

BARCO staff said they want Open Works to be a civic institution — like a recreation center or a library — and compare it to the YMCA. They hope to open next year and have between 400 and 500 regular users and as many as 50 people teaching classes.

"We're also looking at this as a community asset," MacLure said.

The founders of other makerspaces, such as the Tool Library and Clayworks, said they believe there is enough room in Baltimore to support all the new spaces. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, for example, is renovating a roughly 130,000-square-foot former city garage in Port Covington as a makerspace.

But enthusiasm for manufacturing as a source of business growth and employment flies runs counter to some trends. In Baltimore City, the number of people employed by manufacturers dropped nearly in half between 2002 and 2012, from just over 21,000 to about 11,750, according to Census data.

And while the number of one-person manufacturing shops shot up from about 240 in 2004 to 433 in 2013, revenue during that time actually declined.

Proponents maintain that advanced manufacturing — a term that includes industries such as aerospace, motor vehicle parts and pharmaceuticals — represents a bright spot within the sector and other trends, like buy-local movements, cheaper technology and rising overseas costs may be changing the dynamic, at least for producers working at a small to medium scale.

"Baltimore could stand to pay more attention to this," said Andy Cook, one of the organizers of the Industrial Arts Collective's Made in Baltimore pop-up shop and a sustainable economic development coordinator in the city's Planning Department. "The city needs to shift its perspective from thinking about manufacturing being just a thing for big guys like Bethlehem Steel and think about smaller companies that are producing for the local market."

Amateurs, fine craftsmen and artists supported the first iteration of the makerspaces, but commercial opportunity and a chance for job creation are out there, said Jason Hardebeck, who in 2013 co-founded the Baltimore Foundery, which offers welding classes and other services from a 2,000-square-foot building on Central Avenue and is about to move into a second, larger location.

"A lot of this is speculative but it's analogous to incubators in that we recognize that there are a lot of people that are entrepreneurs doing startups and how can we support that," he said. "What we found is there's never any room … They always seem to be at capacity. … Once you have the resources, the needs emerge."

Some people who have participated in makerspaces are already starting to see business result.

Steve Iannelli, a 28-year-old chemical engineer, went to his first class at the Station North Tool Library for an OkCupid date. The relationship didn't pan out, but the Canton resident now volunteers and teaches there and his woodworking hobby has turned into a $1,000-a-month sideline.

Iannelli said the tool library was critical, giving him access to the materials — as well as knowledge — to take it to the next level.

Now the Johns Hopkins University alumnus sometimes flirts with the idea of relying on his Bmore CreateMore furniture-making business as his primary job.

"You know what they say: 'If you do something that you love, you don't work a day in your life,' " he joked. "We'll see how profitable it becomes."

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