How to Start a Makerspace in Small Town America

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How to Start a Makerspace in Small Town America

If the Maker Movement is truly for everyone, one of the challenges it faces is creating bastions for learning in even the most remote places. There’s no doubt that makerspaces, places that are emblematic of the Maker Movement, are spreading everywhere these days. But if we look at where that’s happening, and the places that get the most attention in publications like MAKE, we often wind up in an urban, high-density area.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done, or isn’t happening, in the suburbs and exurbs, though.

Starting a makerspace in a small town comes with many challenges that spaces in cities do not face. Lower population density, lesser awareness of the Maker Movement, and lack of convenient public transit to and from the space being a few of those things. But with a little luck, a lot of hard work, and the help and understanding of your community, you can make it happen.

SpaceLab, the second small town makerspace that I’ve co-founded in the Chicago suburbs, has just proven that very thing. The first Kickstarter campaign launched since the new “makerspace” category was announced at the White House Makerfaire, and the first successfully funded small town space, SpaceLab proves that Making is truly for everyone, no matter if they’re in a city, a suburb, or a small rural town.

So how did we attack the problems that small suburban spaces face?

To combat the awareness problem, we forged local partnerships with our village government, local libraries, schools, other local non-profits, and a relentless outreach program through local television and newspapers. Ongoing scheduled classes with these organizations, as well as press and media calling for all people to join us, and programs with big speakers from in the city drew people in.

The public transit problem was something else we were concerned about. To fix it, we looked for a location in the most convenient high-density area in our town, eventually choosing a place near the train depot in our semi-abandoned but still convenient commercial downtown area. Being within walking distance of a train, a bike trail, and other local businesses has been a huge boon to SpaceLab.

Finally, we needed to convince people that they were a part of the Maker Movement: they just didn’t know it yet! We did this through a series of articles in the local newspaper, as well as classes, that emphasized the empowering message of creating and fixing the things that we own.

My advice for other small town makerspaces? You need to build a support system within your community in order to succeed. Spread the fundamental ideals of the Maker Movement: teaching, learning, growing. Share your vision with anybody who will listen. Everything else will fall into place.

6 thoughts on “How to Start a Makerspace in Small Town America

  1. C Campbell says:

    I live in small town USA on the Eastern Shore MD and run a small manufacturing facility. Used to live in downtown DC, and have used the maker spaces out in CA. The thought of a maker space here in rural USA is very appealing — could make reuse of some of my facility space. As a EE and programmer, in addition to business owner, I’d like to introduce 3D printing and other fab techniques out here to youth and young adults, too. But – my big concern is adding liability protection to the space without jacking up my insurance costs (the odds of a newbie hurting themselves are not inconsequential). Secondly, there’s little crime out here, but tool theft is one of them, and that concerns me as word gets out. So, as I see it, the best way to introduce it is to use shared spaces like mine, but the matter of insurance and facility protection would weigh too heavily on me for it to proceed. In order to gain true liability protection, I’d need another LLC (or nonprofit) with its own coverage dedicated to the charter of the “maker” space, and that’s a shame. Because, your best promoters could be folks like me who have a facility suitable for sharing, and a personal and professional interest in seeing the spark of creativity that’s awakened when using these spaces.

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    2. Mike Parks says:

      Where at? My wife is from the Cambridge area. We are currently down in St. Mary’s County and have PaxSpace up and running We are in fab shop of a local small business and as far as I know seem to have solved all the insurance issues and such.

      1. Noah Spence says:

        Nice! I would love to get something going on the Eastern Shore.

    3. Noah Spence says:

      I live in Preston, MD and would love to have a MakerSpace on the Eastern Shore somewhere.

  2. Robert C Betzel says:

    Jayson, I think you are spot on to one of the keys of a makerspace not only getting started but succeeding in a small town. We have been working for the past twelve months to forge the needed partnerships to allow a space work in Macon, GA. Through a number of people and organizations coming together our first makerspace, SparkMacon will open on Nov 7th. I also think that a strong core group that is willing to see it through is key because as you said you will spend a lot of time just educating people about what it is and what it can do. That core group has to be dedicated to the cause even in the face of others not being so supportive.

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Jayson Margalus has co-founded the makerspaces Workshop 88 and SpaceLab in the suburbs of Chicago. He makes games and teaches game development at DePaul University. In his free time he hacks, gardens, brews beer, teaches kids how to program, and more. Say hi to him at @jaymargalus on Twitter!

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