A look at Open Works' place in the local economy, 3 years in - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Sep. 11, 2019 10:55 am

A look at Open Works’ place in the local economy, 3 years in

The massive makerspace contributed $8.5 million in economic impact since opening on Greenmount Avenue, according to a new report. Here's a look at its grassroots approach.
Inside Open Works.

Inside Open Works.

(Photo by Stephen Babcock)

In the three years since Open Works debuted on Greenmount Avenue, the 34,000-square-foot space has gained a foothold as a space for makers and entrepreneurs to build products and companies. It’s also brought in opportunities for education and community connections.

The space has accounted for $8.5 million in economic impact on a combined state and local level, a new report focusing on the space titled “Turning Makerspaces into Greater Places” shows. The space supports more than 55 small businesses and supports 118 jobs, when factoring in both employees who work at the space and the members who use its micro-studios and use its tools.

It has made news locally, but it also has a place in the national conversation, said Dr. Ron Williams, a professor at Coppin State University who leads the West Baltimore university business school’s Center of Strategic Ingepreneurship. Williams was the principal investigator on the new report that takes a measure of the space’s operations, and its local economic impact.

“They have an opportunity to be an example or a model to many spaces across the country,” Williams said.

For one, the space stands out for its scale. The report states that it’s above average in the following three areas:

  • Size: The 34,000-square-foot size, while a national survey found that most respondents were between 500 and 10,000 square feet.
  • Employees: Open Works has 33 total employees and six full-time, compared to a national average among makerspaces of 8.1 jobs and 1.1 full-time.
  • Resources: Open Works has areas like metalworking, conference rooms, mini-studios, classrooms and a coffee shop are available. Less than 25% of makerspaces have each of these respective categories. Open Works also has tools for woodworking, laser cutting, metal machining, sewing, electronics, graphic design and more.

Another area where Open Works stands out is diversity of membership, leadership and board members. Compared to national averages that show the majority of makerspace members are white and male, Open Works has a 54% female clientele, and 43% people of color.

According to Williams, this isn’t only a result of the urban environment where it’s located, as other makerspaces in diverse cities haven’t brought in a diverse cross-section. According to Executive Director Will Holman, the makerspace has been intentional about diversity from the start, as both the staff and board were a diverse group.

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“You have to model the behavior that you want to see. Before we had members, our staff and board were the example we could point to,” Holman said.

The space has also offered scholarships and other programs designed to make the space affordable and accessible, Holman said. Forming partnerships with Moms as Entrepreneurs and holding the annual EnterpRISE pitch competition have also provided pathways to new membership to community members. The partnership with Coppin State University, which is a historically Black university, also provides a way for students to get involved at the space.

And details are important: Holman points out that the staff nametags have preferred pronouns. In a public space, he said, it’s important to “model the cutting edge of what diversity looks like in 2019.”

There’s also a mix in the space of where the members come from geographically. Just over 60% of the members come from Baltimore city, while the balance are spread from around the neighboring Mid-Atlantic states.

“It’s great to say, ‘Hey look, we’re a positive narrative. We’re bringing people into town.’ But we’re also helping everybody that’s already here,” Holman said.

Respondents also voiced what they would like to see in the space. With some saying that cost remains a barrier, Open Works is looking to keep a focus on affordability. Holman said the memberships offer a big value when compared with the cost of the services would be on their own, but going forward he said the primarily grant-funded organization will need to access other avenues of funding to keep the cost of access driving down. One sign of another funding source has come in the form of products the Open Works team is building through its contract services arm.

And on a sector level, the report states there’s a variety of different folks coming together. Williams said it breaks down into three areas: creatives, hackers who are building new technologies, and the craftspeople who are working on physical goods. Along with providing space for different communities, Open Works provides a place for them all to connect.

“Where else would they rub elbows with one another? We’re one of those melting pots,” Holman said. And it hasn’t just been for the sake of expanding a network: “A lot of them have collaborating and formed business relationships which has also been really awesome to see.”

To Holman, it shows that makerspaces have a place in growing a local economy. In Open Works’ case, that focus has been on the grassroots businesses that form when people with ideas get access to tools and resources to bring them to life. Economic developers prize big jobs numbers of bringing a new factory to town, but a grassroots approach shows how these jobs can rise from the community itself.

“In the past, makerspaces have been thought of as these hobbyist places or tinkerer or artist places, and we are certainly that, but we are also a place that’s generating real economic gains for people that live here,” Holman said.

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