June 20, 2018
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‘Not everyone has given up their crazy’: Makers of all types come together in new Maine ventures

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — Before this year, a group of Rockland entrepreneurs now sharing an angular steel-sided building on Lermond Cove had no idea they’d be working together. And why would they?

Tom Weis is a woodworker and designer; Julie O’Rourke is a graphic artist; and Nate Davis … well, even his co-workers admit what Davis does sometimes goes over their heads.

“I’ve been working with algorithmic art and algorithmic music for the last few years,” said Davis, whose work includes computer programming and machine learning projects for people and companies around the world. And he has a PhD in music, to boot.

What the three have in common are specific skills to share, a vision for how multiple disciplines can come together and ongoing experience running independent businesses. They also share an appreciation for historical coincidence: their quick-to-launch project called The Steel House is on the same land where the speed record-setting clipper ship Red Jacket launched in 1853.

The project doesn’t fit neatly into a category of business, but it’s part of a trend in Maine and nationally to combine space where creative professionals work with space for students, amateurs and “weekend warriors” to learn and gain expertise in technology and craft. There will be other events and classes, including poetry readings and cocktail-making lessons, too.

These types of working arrangements have cropped up in different forms, from co-working spaces for those mostly desk-bound to spaces for builders and craftspeople like those in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood. Sometimes, as with the new Open Bench Project launching this year at Thompson’s Point in Portland, the projects are called makerspaces. Some of a different ilk are called hackerspaces — and other variants exist.

People have started similar projects across the country that, largely, aim to lower the cost of making and prototyping to help small startups. All run in part on curiosity and collaboration.

“Our hope is to create a center for design and technology where it could be anything from lectures to bands playing to experimental music to workshop programs,” said O’Rourke, The Steel House’s creative director.

Davis, the programmer and chief technology officer for the project, said the group also intends to be “a force for economic development,” both by showing students and amateurs what’s needed to make it as a creative professional and to help existing businesses keep up with trends in design and technology.

For that reason, the project has also gotten the attention of John Holden, the city’s community development director, and a group of similar officials throughout the midcoast who plan on applying for a grant of up to $50,000 from the Maine Technology Institute’s Cluster Initiative Program to support The Steel House and ventures like it.

“It’s a great kind of private initiative with the programs in training and education,” Holden said, “but yet they are entrepreneurs putting a stake in the ground saying they can do their work — and they do work all over the continent and world — and they’re doing it from Rockland, Maine.”

That economic development goal — helping makers make a living and businesses to launch — is a common thread with the Portland-based Open Bench Project, set to open in full this fall.

“I’ve seen a lot of people do what I call ‘giving up their crazy’ because they have to pay the rent,” said Jake Ryan, founder of the Open Bench Project. “It doesn’t allow them to follow up on their passion … and if I’m not going to be able to pay for it, I’m not going to be able to do it.”

Ryan said he hopes the makerspace in Portland will also serve as a business incubator, where people can hone their craft, learn business skills and move on to bigger things with the business savvy to make a go of it. That model also makes room for the next up-and-comer, Ryan said.

That project will run on a membership structure, with an entry-level fee of $29 per month for weekend-only use and $200 per month for full members with their own studio space. Ryan estimates that he’ll need roughly 250 people involved at some level to make the project sustainable — a number that he’ll reach by courting school and university groups as well as businesses and independent craftspeople.

The Steel House will be supported through its partners, other members and a lineup of classes ranging from robotics to skateboard building that in the summer could include visiting teachers in the building at 711 Main St. The Rockland space has two dedicated spaces open now, with the smaller of the two running $250 a month and the larger at $450 per month.

The two projects are among the newest of their kind in the state. The Open Bench project will hold an open house Saturday at its Brick South building at Thompson’s Point, capping off the second of five phases toward its full launch next fall. The Rockland group had its first open house in early April and because of its greater direction by individual business owners located in the space, has no set goals — but high hopes — for class attendance.

“We don’t have the specific financial or attendance milestones, but we want to make sure that by the end of the summer, our model at least runs really smoothly,” Davis said.

O’Rourke said the group considered a traditional makerspace, which would solicit more members for shared equipment, but decided to have more control over the space.

Ryan said he believes there’s no one-size-fits-all model for makerspaces.

“We’re not building something and selling it to the market,” Ryan said. “We’re finding out what [the market] wants and making that. And right now people want a space to get together and work.”

The project so far has acquired through donations the equipment to be shared in its space. Separately, it has about $17,000 raised online with a dollar-for-dollar matching grant from the developers of the Thompson’s Point property.

Leaders of the Rockland project started in January, with additional support from the building’s owner and project’s fourth partner, Elysa Coster. They repainted walls, sized up work spaces and built desks and tables made of fir plywood set on casters, so they can be rolled around and away to reconfigure the space.

The location of that space, right on the water, is part of what brings them together, too.

“We wanted to live in a beautiful place and be able to do our work and be around other people who were doing the same thing,” said O’Rourke, the only Maine native of the trio, from Blue Hill. “What makes us different from other people and other businesses doing similar things is that being in bigger cities makes sense, but to come up here you have to have a reason and that reason has to be a little bit off-the-wall.”

It’s something Ryan has also noticed in building the network of volunteers and members to get his Portland project off the ground.

“I’ve met crazy people who are just doing weird [stuff] in their houses,” Ryan said. “It makes me feel good because not everyone has given up their crazy.”

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