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Wednesday, November 20,2013

Creative class

Historic Old Town building becomes home base for Lansing makers club

by Stefanie Pohl
A new congregation recently started gathering inside the former Temple Club in Lansing’s Old Town district. Itīs open to the public and meets regularly, where conversations often revolve around creation and makers. But it’s not what you think.

The ever-evolving location at 502 E. Grand River Ave. recently found new life as a church of innovation. The Lansing Makers Network — a ragtag group of technology wizards, scientists and artists — has taken temporary refuge inside the space. Their guiding principle? Unabashed, unfiltered and unending curiosity.

“We provide access to tools, equipment (and) space to work,” the group’s founding member and board President Brian Adams said. “We have metal-working tools, woodworking tools, electronics, 3-D printers. Anything somebody wants to make with.”

The group is part of a movement that holds annual Maker Faires in big cities around the world. The one in Detroit, held each July, is one of three flagship Maker Faires in the nation. And last Saturday, the Lansing Makers Network held an open house in honor of its big move.

Adams greeted visitors just inside the door; next to him was a welcome sign made from the space’s laser cutter. Members Mike Flaga, Jody Applegate and Tim Schmidt provided guided tours of the space and introduced visitors to different areas such as the 3-D printer and laser cutters.

The Lansing Makers Network established itself as a nonprofit corporation two months after the six founding members gathered for their first meeting in January 2012. In May 2013, the Makers moved into the Temple Club where redevelopment plans for the nearly 100-year-old building had stalled. The location choice was a happy accident, Adams says. The building’s owner, Alan Hooper, one of three partners behind Old Town Temple LLC, had been working with the group to find a space inside the nearby Leaseway Motorcar Transport Co. building.

It took longer to pan out, so we asked for a place to use temporarily,” Adams said. “(Hooper) listed a couple of places he owns and he mentioned the Temple Club, and I said, ‘That’s the one I want.’” Hooper is still working on getting the Makers into their permanent space at the Leaseway, but moving the Makers into the Temple is what he calls “a partnership of convenience.” He said he’s been trying to develop the Temple space into a restaurant/bar, but admitted it’s been a tough project to finance. He said having the Makers in the space is mutually beneficial: Having responsible tenants using the building prevents vandalism and further deterioration of the property. The 14,500-square-foot building had been vacant since 2006.

At the open house event, the second level of the building was transformed into a hands-on showcase of some of the Makers’ output, including a mega-Tetris board and a life-sized version of the board game Operation. Over 40 visitors showed up in the first hour alone, which Schmidt said was “well beyond our expectations.” Several of the visitors were families with young children who didn’t hesitate to grab one of the “working” magic wands or hop on the bike of the human-powered Jacob’s Ladder.

The second floor is kept open for a variety of uses, while other categories are segmented together. The laser printer sits on the mezzanine level, while metal and wood workshops are set up on the main level. Adams says the members’ skill sets are heavy on electronics and machining, but he would love to get soft craft members in the space.

Lansing native Adams, 32, works as a programmer at Michigan State University at the College of Arts and Letters. He worked for years to assemble the local inventors who became the group’s founding members.

“They’re trying to ( d e v e l o p ) something that doesn’t really exist around Lansing,” Hooper said. “When they’ve established that, it’s going to be a real catalyst for (new) projects. Whether it’s in business or expanding creativity, it’s an outlet for people in the community who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that equipment.”

Following the afternoon open house event was the Lansing Makers Network Opening Party. (LMNOP — check it out, even their parties have inspired acronyms.) It was a chance for the members and friends to celebrate their work and successes thus far.

Adams said several of the visitors expressed interest in memberships, which run between $50 and $80 per month, with discounts at three months and one year. Membership fees help pay for rent, utilities and insurance. A majority of the equipment in the space has been donated, while other pieces have been consigned or leased.

“What’s the point of it sitting in the garage?” Adams said. “People have brought their stuff in just so it gets used more often than if they would use it.”

But he says the marquee aspect of the Makers space is not necessarily about having a wide array of tools, but the skill sets in its members. Schmidt’s background in the open source software community and 3-D printing brought him to the group.

“Someone will be the steward of a project and everyone pitches in,” Schmidt said.

“Businesspeople know this, artists know this. You get stuck on things, you get writer’s block, but that’s where the Lansing Maker space shines. There are a dozen people here that are all about helping. You aren’t stuck in a cubicle. You don’t have this rigid job role. If you want to tackle something, it’s wide open.”

Louise Gradwohl, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association, agrees that the Makers are a natural fit for the historic Lansing district. Specifically, for the annual Old Town Scrapfest, which pits teams of metalworking artists against each other in a weeklong competition.

“It would be great for the makers to (form a) team,” Gradwohl said. “Scrapfest is such a one-of-a-kind event. We’ve reached out to makers networks all over, so it’s only going to help boost (Old Town).”

Joe Zimmerman, another member, uses this analogy: “(It’s like) a gym membership with tools instead of weights. But there’s a lot more to it with the community and ideas.”

Zimmerman, 35, is a computer programmer with interests in computer-controlled machinery. He was doing the same type of work on his own in a small space but ran out of room. Having the Maker space and people like Adams and Schmidt to help is inspiring.

“Each one of us has a dozen crazy ideas that we’re like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if … ’ and mixing those up in a big blender makes amazing things happen,” Schmidt said. “The mission is so wide open, it’s tough to talk about and tough to articulate. You have to be here and experience it to really get it.”

Lansing Makers Network

502 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing Membership: $50-$80/month; annual discounts apply lansingmakersnetwork.org

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