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Making Spaces for Innovation

What if there was a place that existed just to provide space to create?In this space you could make almost anything you wanted and you could do it alongside other creative innovators. Such places, called makerspaces, are beginning to crop up in cities all over the United States including Charlottesville and Staunton. WMRA’s Kara Lofton has the story.

[Sound of Shapeoko 2, an open source CNC Router]

For Staunton Makerspace partners Dan Funk and Jim Rutt, makerspaces are the libraries of the future. They are public, community driven places for new ideas and innovation, in which people can come and just—make things.

Staunton Makerspace operates out of a converted warehouse in downtown Staunton. There, Funk and Rutt have amassed a variety of different power tools, computers, a 3D printer, and an open source CNC Router for members to use.

Currently, Staunton Makerspace is subsidized by Funk, Rutt and others members who go beyond the membership fee to put their own money into rent and equipment. Funk said their dream, though, is that as membership grows, Staunton Makerspace can exist solely on membership dues.

FUNK:  I think that overtime what will happen is hopefully that access to equipment and the opportunity to be around other people who have diverse skills in art, in science, in technology, that makerspaces create a home for those people to collaborate and build and learn and do things.”

Makerspaces have existed in cities around the country for years, but are not always well known—even to the communities they serve. Like Staunton Makerspace, most of these tech-based societies operate off of a membership model. Members pay a fee and are able to use the facilities and equipment to make anything they want. In Staunton, this has included projects as diverse as putting together the open source router heard at the beginning of this story, braiding a rug, or putting together a full-sized replica of an R2D2 unit from Star Wars. Events open to the public are also hosted periodically.  

Funk first heard about makerspaces two and a half years ago from Brian Williford, who established a makerspace in Charlottesville called Tinkersmiths.  While Tinkersmiths started with a similar vision to Staunton Makerspace, Tinkersmiths has now evolved to include a for-profit company that accepts a variety of different consulting projects.

For Williford, makerspaces...

WILLIFORD:  “are really becoming tech incubators, which is how we are sustaining our model…we help incubate aligning ideas and talent with money and developing new products and services. So that is why I say it started really pure, just to be a community shop, and now…we’re pretty ingrained the tech community as far as being an idea incubator or tech incubator.”

By tech incubator, he means a company that provides new startups with the space, skills, training, expertise or money needed to execute an idea.

WILLIFORD:  “For the last 25 years, all of the venture capital money has been focused on writing ones and zeros—or writing code…but now the market has shifted back into building hardware. We have found that globally we are polluting the planet, by putting them in a ship and bringing them across the ocean, or developing them in countries that have no ecosystem controls. So there has been a big push to build things at home again, plus it creates jobs, and all of those skills are gone, and the only place these money guys can find these people anymore is to find them hanging out in makerspaces.”

Although he freely admits, Tinkersmiths is not a “traditional” Makerspace, Williford has not let go of his vision of providing a space for people to “tinker.” In fact, to his knowledge, Tinkersmiths is the only Makerspace in the country that is able to provide their space free of charge for members—something they are able to do because they take on consulting projects.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.