Central Vermont is full of creative people. Many of these people possess skills and talents that are highly desirable in the marketplace, but require an exorbitant startup cost in order to be brought to scale. Starting a business is costly, risky and complicated. These impediments, compounded by a high cost of living and a poor job market, encourage people to stay in the job that they have. Chris Hancock, local developer of educational and game apps, and Lars Torres, the owner of the community workspace, Local 64, are hoping to change that. They want to remove some of the impediments that prevent otherwise talented and creative people from starting their own businesses.
Torres and founding members have been able to create a space that meets some of these needs with Local 64, a shared workspace in downtown Montpelier, in which people can rent space to work. An early partnership with Montpelier Property Management, the support of Community National Bank, and a couple of early investors helped bring Local 64 from an idea to reality.
The opening of Local 64 has freed some local artists, designers, writers, technology developers and business folks from the shackles of leasing or buying office space, greatly reducing one major startup cost. Hancock and Torres now hope to take this idea one step further. They want to create a local hub for the creative economy, complete with facilities where professionals, hobbyists and students can physically build some of the prototypes that they are designing by using communally owned or rented fabricating machines such as 3D printers, routers, laser cutters and other expensive tools.
Such a space is called a makers’ space, and they are popping up throughout the country. About a month ago, one popped up in Burlington. The new venture, which received nearly 900 visitors during its grand opening celebration, is called Generator. According to their website, generatorvermont.com, “Generator creates a community of collaboration between artists, engineers, entrepreneurs and artisans. Generator’s objective is to foster a hybrid hive of activity that creates a fertile environment for innovation, creativity and idea fulfillment.”
Hancock has long been fascinated by the possibilities of new architectural directions to mark Montpelier’s downtown as a hub of creativity and innovation and to carry its rich architectural heritage forward. The empty lot on Main Street across from City Hall seemed to him to afford the chance for a distinctive new building. So when Hancock bumped into Danny Sagan, a local architect, at a party last year, Hancock couldn’t help but share his idea with Sagan. Sagan, who is also an associate professor of architecture and a program director in the School of Architecture and Art at Norwich University, liked the idea so much that he had an idea: what if Hancock and Torres pretended to be clients for one of Norwich’s architecture classes?
Hancock jumped at the idea, and this past fall he and Torres acted as clients to Assistant Professor Tolya Stonorov and Adjunct Professor Steve Kredell’s third semester architecture studio. Torres and Hancock worked with Stonorov, who also has her own architecture firm, Stonorov Workshop in Montpelier, to draw up a list of desired design elements. Local 64 member Paul Wallich, a writer/technologist, contributed some additional requirements for the makers’ space. Then Stonorov’s class got to work bringing the structure to life.
After visiting the site, studying the surrounding architecture and digesting the ideas of Torres and Hancock, Stonorov’s students created their own versions of what could be Montpelier’s first makers’ space. Torres and Hancock’s request included much more than just a makers’ space; in fact, the building that they envision pushed the limits of architectural space in Montpelier. They envision a six-story Center for Constructive Arts that would include a gallery and café; 1,800 sq. ft. of makers’ space; 1,000 sq. ft. of garden space; 3,600 sq. ft. dedicated to Learning Touch (the company for which Hancock is the director of new product development) and 3,600 sq. ft. for an expanded Local 64. The plans included a main level café that grants views into the makers’ space with which they hope it will share a floor.
A tall order for even a seasoned architect, Torres and Hancock’s request forced Stonorov’s students to really explore ways to create a space that could be easily adaptable to meet an ever-changing set of different needs.
Hancock envisions all of these spaces somehow being drawn together by some design element that would help transport people from one type of creative work to the next. “It was part of that theory of how people would get drawn in,” said Hancock, “and their interest with this would be a springboard to then see that, and so on.”
The proposal certainly drew students in, and Stonorov said that her students took it very seriously. A total of eighteen students created proposals for the imaginary project. Several students put Hancock and Torres’ desire to have a versatile space at the center of their design. “One student, David Burke,” said Stonorov, “came up with a building that he wanted to be able to shift and move so that the users would have the ability to change their space depending on what they needed.” Another, Michelle Lee, she said, “had an idea of making individual work pods that were on sliding tracks.”
Torres and Hancock are hoping to get the Montpelier community moving when they host eight of Stonorov’s student’s proposals at Local 64 on May 9. The Jacobs family, who owns the property, currently has no plan for further exploring Stonorov’s students’ plans. The lot is in a difficult site to develop, because it is within the floodplain and would require a significant investment if it were to become a reality. According to the city website, montpelier-vt.org, “New buildings are required to be built above the base flood elevation.”
Jesse Jacobs does like the idea of bringing a makers’ space to Montpelier, however, and feels that the city needs to shift away from simply catering to state jobs and find ways to create spaces that embrace a more independent, creative entrepreneurial spirit. “I think that what Lars [Torres] is trying to incept in Montpelier and other communities throughout Vermont is important,” said Jacobs.
Torres, Hancock and Stonorov are hoping that their event on May 9 will help get people excited about the future possibilities for new architecture downtown, as well as the future of central Vermont’s creative economy. With enough community support, the Jacobs family and other developers in town may one day consider the feasibility of such a makers’ space.