By Carolyn Battista / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano

spark-logoIn New London there’s a new place where people design, build, tinker, and experiment; where they  share equipment and ideas; where they can find new opportunities and maybe even launch new businesses. Called Spark Makerspace, it’s up and running in a famed old building on Golden Street, after more than a year of planning, fundraising, cleaning, and hauling.

People pay monthly dues to use Spark’s resources which include a woodshop, a commercial kitchen, electronic equipment, a digital media lab, silk-screen printing equipment, assorted art supplies, and sewing machines. There are laser cutters, a CNC (computerized numeric control) machine, and three 3D printers (of three different sizes) for people to try out or to use often. More will be added over time to what’s already a bigger assortment of useful, interesting “stuff ” than most people could afford to buy  or find room to store. People with “regular” memberships can simply use these resources; people with “working” memberships pay less but contribute by working–teaching a class perhaps, or organizing an event. There’s co-working space, along with plans for shared retail space.

Organizers stress that people are as important as all the space and “stuff.” At Spark, novices find guidance, enthusiasts find one another, and all sorts of folks can join forces to make things happen. “We’re a community cultivator,” says Hannah Gant, who’s on Spark’s five-member board of directors.  She has an M.B.A. along with experience in running her own businesses, and calls herself “a civic  entrepreneur”—someone who brings people together to improve where they are.  She sees Spark as “a way to leverage local talent, to make New London and Southeastern Connecticut more economically vibrant.”

Michael Passero, mayor of New London says, “Spark has tremendous potential to drive economic and business activity here. This passionate group of people working together will help foster opportunities for entrepreneurs.” He says that access to Spark’s varied, often highly specialized equipment can help people develop marketable skills and can help small business to grow and that Spark can help members  turn out unique products and also give them a platform for selling them. He adds, “The sharing of skills and talents is one of the most exciting aspects.” For one thing, people can teach one another how to use equipment, how to do things. For another, when people of different skills and interests work in close contact with one another, the result is “a synergy” that leads to new ideas, new enterprises.

A state grant helped get Spark going, along with a Kickstarter campaign and numerous donations of funds, equipment, and time. Last October, when Spark moved into what New Londoners call “the old El N Gee Building,” volunteers began regular, ongoing Saturday work parties. There was much to be done in a building that over decades had housed enterprises including a roller skating rink, a Moose Club, a strip club, and a music venue where the floors really shook.

Spark volunteers cleared, scrubbed, painted, put up walls, and lugged in equipment. As word spread, people began coming in, joining in.  On one winter Saturday, Ron Ward worked in the woodshop, a space that’s freshly painted in white, orange, and blue, with a big blue “flaming lightbulb,” the Spark logo, on one wall. “Spark blue!” Ward said, as he applied blue paint to a four-by-eight pegboard. “This is the last of seven,” he said, and all would be used for hanging up frequently used tools. Ward, an attorney, added that he likes to work with his hands.

Tim McGuire, a longtime cabinet maker who oversees the woodshop, was bent nearly double as he  applied a polyurethane finish to the underside of a table edge. “It’s going to be a building table,” he said, standing up. “It’s a good solid base, stable, perfectly flat.” He was making sure that every inch was properly coated, properly “slippery,” for easy cleaning. McGuire often shows people around the woodshop, where equipment—much of it donated—includes the CNC machine, a scroll saw, a band saw, a table saw, a shaper, a joiner, a big drill press, and several small ones. “Who’s got access to a complete woodshop?” said McGuire, who figures he’s not the only one whose “shop” at home consists of a little basement space by the washer and dryer.

With settling in still going on, work-party volunteers had to step carefully around assorted “stuff”–boxes of computers and other electronic equipment, a big dry-mount press, a 3D printer awaiting a missing  part, the silk-screen equipment, and more. Behind the action filling one wall, was the commercial  kitchen equipment. So far suggested uses for that include cooking classes, catering businesses, or special group dinners.
John Curran and Casey Moran, both board members, were on hand. “Everyone’s very excited,” Curran said, to see Spark take off. State and local officials have visited, so has a local high school robotics club. Recent activity has included an upcycling contest, electronics meet-ups, and classes in drawing and woodworking.  As students in the woodworking class learned how to use the woodshop equipment, they also helped construct much-needed work tables for Spark.  Moran noted that many people have turned up eager to share skills like woodworking, and that others have seemed surprised and delighted to find someone else they could just talk to about, say, robotics. Some have plans to carry out; others simply enjoy t_DSC4706-copyrying out “stuff,” starting new friendships. Young, old ,and in-between are coming to what Gant calls “an awesome makerspace/airspace/co-working space.”

Moran headed up to the second floor where a big area, with exposed rafters and brick walls, is to be used for art. “Cozy and comfortable for artists,” he said, as two volunteers pushed brooms back and forth. Curran came to New London by way of his stint in the U.S. Navy; now, he attends UConn at Avery Point. Moran, an artist, manages the Makerspace; at the work party he carried a mop and bucket. When people talk about what Spark can do, what may be ahead, he says, “I’ll make it happen.”
Gant calls the whole operation “a place where people make things and make things happen.”  She says, “It’s not just an organization; it’s an organism,” which she sees as alive and growing. She envisions such possibilities as, say, a person being supported to start a recording studio within Spark, then drawing in others, like musicians, to make more happen. She hopes that Spark can indeed foster business development and, as a cooperative, can eventually share a portion of income from successes with an internal fund that covers Spark’s operational costs and feeds new projects.  She also mentions the commercial kitchen as a possible site for group dinners; maybe ones where people learn about the food  that’s served. “Breaking bread together,” she says, “is always a good thing for people to do.”

Makerspaces are growing in number and popularity around the country; Spark aims to be one that really does spark creativity, community, and entrepreneurship—not just one of them, but all.  Gant points out that people can sign up through the website which is packed with information about Spark’s dues, organization, events, and more. The website also includes a questionnaire (“What skills do you possess?” “What would you like to learn how to do?”) and a wish list.

Got any any extra storage bins, or soldering kits?

The website for Spark Makerspace is www.Spark.coop The address is 86 Golden Street, New London,
and the phone is 860-866-4834.

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3 replies
  1. Maria-Victoria Orlando
    Maria-Victoria Orlando says:

    This is a nice article about this venture. i did actually meet and speak with Hannah Gant earlier this year while visiting another Coop business here in New London called Fiddleheads. At that time she spoke to me about their campaign with crowdfunding, I mentioned that I too was running my own crowdfund campaign (sadly, unsuccessful).
    In either case, I believe this should be a great outlet/resource for the artistic/crafters in the area, I will definitely go visit their website and check out their coming event(s).

    Reply
  2. Maria-Victoria Orlando
    Maria-Victoria Orlando says:

    This is truly a great concept in general and especially for the city of New London plus residents/crafters of Southeastern CT.
    I actually met Hannah Gant a few months back while attending the anniversary event at Fiddleheads Market (another coop business here in New London). At the time I mentioned to her that I too was running my own crowdfund campaign to help “spark” (I couldn’t resist, I have to say that!) my own aspirations in artistic design (T-shirt designer). Unfortunately, crowdfunding is ONLY as Successful as those who support it, via financial contributions or as is the case nowadays, Social Media Sharing, very important.
    I will definitely visit the website and check out the coming events of Spark Makerspace, I believe it will have a positive effect on both its members and community.

    Reply

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