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Connecticut's Largest Makers' Community Being Built In Hartford

An array of workshops, computer labs and art studios are being built up inside the iconic G. Fox and Co. building, the new site of Connecticut’s largest makerspace.

The project will be the second venue of its kind in Hartford and the biggest in the state, with 20,000 square feet of space for hobbyists, hackers and crafters to test their skills at the creative and the technical. MakerspaceCT. It was launched by New England Maker Summit founders Devra Sisitsky and Bryan Patton, and will offer its first classes by early February and fully open by early fall.

Like other DIY collectives, MakerspaceCT plans to offer classes, equipment and work space for a wide range of traditional crafts and trades — including blacksmithing, welding, woodworking, jewelry making, ceramics and sewing — as well as digital skills, such as 3D printing, computer-controlled routing and engineering tool Arduino.

“We definitely want to bring in the arts because these are inextricably linked and intertwined with innovation and manufacturing,” she said. “The collaboration you see at other makerspaces is heartwarming, to see people who normally live in different worlds working together to further a project or an idea.”

But aside from encouraging residents to explore hands-on hobbies, makerspaces help train the workforce in new technologies.

In 2002, only 5 percent of all jobs required high digital skills, while another 40 percent required medium digital skills, according to the Brookings Institute. In 2016, 23 percent of jobs needed high skill and 48 required medium skill, a massive change that’s easily seen in Connecticut.

In the same Brookings report, released in November, Hartford was named the fourth best large metro area for digital jobs, trailing only San Jose, Calif., Boston and Austin, Texas. The Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area ranked 7th and New Haven-Milford 39th.

None of that is surprising to Steve Yanicke, co-founder of MakeHartford, the city’s first makerspace. He can point to more than $275,000 in personal income that MakeHartford members have generated in new jobs, promotions and contracts thanks to technical and digital skills they’ve learned at his four-year-old nonprofit.

“You might be waiting tables and now you’re learning how to work CNC,” a system for computer-controlled machining, Yanicke said. “So that’s going to take you from a day-to-day job to something that pays $60,000.”

The new makerspace would be the second in the city after MakeHartford, which opened in 2013 as a hands-on community for artists, technologists and entrepreneurs. The so-called “gym for geeks” holds meetups and classes in the basement of 30 Arbor St., an Open Studio Hartford venue that also houses a distillery and several art studios.

The organization has about 30 members paying monthly dues and a community of 50 to 60 people participating on other levels, according to Yanicke.

Similar spaces have opened across the country over the past 10 years. since an annual programmers meeting sparked the beginnings of several makerspaces in 2007, including NYC Resistor in Brooklyn, HacDC in the capitol and Noisebridge in San Francisco.

But the makers’ collectives that have sprouted up since have seen varying degrees of success.

Maybe most notably, Menlo Park, Calif.-based Tech Shop announced in November it was closing its 14 U.S. and international locations due to bankruptcy.

On a smaller scale, financial strain recently forced New London’s Spark to downsize from its original 9,000-square-foot home, a move it explained in an ongoing crowdfunding campaign.

But the makers’ movement appears to be going strong at CT Hackerspace in Watertown, Fairfield County Maker’s Guild in Norwalk, MakeHaven in New Haven and NESIT in Meriden.

And Yanicke said there’s plenty of demand in Hartford for a second makerspace, especially a larger, downtown venue that can offer another resource to any startups that outgrow MakeHartford.

Jamie Bratt, the city’s economic development and planning director, said she sees the new makers’ community playing into a growing “fraternity of energy” downtown, along with Capital Community College in the same building, the new UConn campus that opened on Front Street in the fall, and Trinity College’s new “liberal arts action lab” that just opened on Constitution Plaza.

“I view this as part of our workforce readiness system as well as an amenity,” Bratt said.

Sisitsky, the MakerspaceCT co-founder, envisions tech types and hackers mingling with artists, sharing ideas for new products and testing out solutions to problems.

“We don’t even have any idea of the kind of projects that can be created in the future with the new technology that’s available,” she added. “I don’t think we even have a glimpse of what’s possible yet.”

She and Patton have raised about $1.3 million in private donations and are looking to double that this year to pay for construction and equipment.

The pair also received a $45,000 matching grant from CTNext, a subsidiary of Connecticut Innovations, the state's venture capital firm, as part of Hartford’s designation as an Innovation Place.

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