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Claremont hopeful makerspace will revive struggling downtown

  • The Sawtooth Mill building in downtown Claremont, on Aug. 11, 2017,. Construction is moving forward on the building to create the MakerSpace a co-working, educational center. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) 

  • The interior of the former Sawtooth Mill building now owned by Claremont MakerSpace in downtown Claremont is shown.



Monitor staff
Friday, August 18, 2017

In recent years, plenty of New England cities have renovated empty industrial buildings to boost their downtowns, filling them with apartments, offices, restaurants or art studios. Now it’s Claremont’s turn, with a twist.

The former home of Joy Manufacturing Co., a long-gone company that for decades dominated the economy in western New Hampshire, is becoming a makerspace. But while such do-it-yourself centers usually launch in a town on a shoestring, Claremont MakerSpace will launch in a big way after years of investments totaling close to $800,000.

“This one is, in many ways, being built backwards from the usual model,” said Steve Goldsmith, one of the co-founders of Claremont MakerSpace. “Usually a bunch of people got together with a couple of tools in a room … and when it grows, they move. We didn’t want to move.”

Like a gym for geeks

Makerspaces are membership-based gathering places for artists, metalworkers, crafters, woodworkers, software hackers and other do-it-yourselfers. They provide tools and equipment – from kilns to welding torches to auto lifts to soldering irons to quilting racks, depending on the makerspace – that members can use in return for a monthly fee, just as gyms provide exercise equipment for members’ use.

Hundreds of independent makerspaces exist around the country, including at least six that have opened in New Hampshire since MakeIt Labs launched in Nashua a decade ago. The state’s makerspaces all began relatively small, often using just tools donated by founding members, with the goal of providing an outlet for local entrepreneurs and hands-on creative folks.

Claremont MakerSpace, by contrast, is opening as part of years of public and private investment that involves a complete rebuild of the 11,000-square-foot Sawtooth Mill (named for its jagged roofline) on Main Street. And its goal is not just to help people itching to get their hands on a plasma torch or 3-D printer but to reinvigorate the downtown.

“We’re looking at it from the economic development perspective, the jobs perspective,” Goldsmith said.

Long-time goal

Claremont has long been looking to bring life back to the Sawtooth Mill building that was built by Sullivan Machine Co. Sullivan started here in 1868 and had a century-long run, including its last few decades as Joy Manufacturing, making Claremont a hub of machine tool manufacturing.

But Joy Manufacturing went under by the 1970s and the old factory sat empty. Much of it was torn down to make way for a parking garage and development of the rest was slowed – as is often the case in old industrial buildings – by soil that had been contaminated with solvents.

The idea of using a makerspace as the building’s centerpiece arose several years ago. The city made improvements to the exterior and sold the building to Twin State MakerSpaces, the non-profit that controls Claremont MarkerSpace, for $18 after removing most of the contaminated soil, according to stories in the Valley News.

The need to rejuvenate downtown led the makerspace to think big, Goldsmith said.

“We could have opened much smaller and developed it into this, but we wanted it to be fully equipped from the start so we could say: Come in and have access to the tools!” Goldmsith said. “We asked, what’s the minimum threshold for relevancy?”

When construction is finished, Claremont MakerSpace will include space and equipment for artists – including textiles – as well as for woodworkers, metalworkers and those interested in electronics. It will also have spaces to be rented by start-ups, and will be holding a full slate of classes in connection with local companies and tech schools.

“We are designing the space to force interactions across people of different trades. That gets ideas (flowing),” Goldsmith said. “We want woodworkers to interact with the quilters; to get to the jewelry studio you have to walk past the electronic studio.”

A soft opening for members will likely be held in October, and a more public opening will take place by the end of the year.

Investments began in 2015

The project got started back in September 2015 with a $250,000 grant from Northern Border Regional Commission to help finance restoration of the building. Additional financing for the nonprofit came from the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority’s Community Development Investment Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development.

The high hopes for the project were demonstrated when an indoor variant of ground-breaking was held Aug. 14, drawing Sen. Maggie Hassan as well as a host of local dignitaries.

Goldsmith and makerspace co-founder Jeremy Katz founded and built up SegNet and SegTel, Upper Valley telecom firms that were Internet and networking pioneers. “We were the second company in New Hampshire to offer web hosting, the first in New England to offer DSL and wireless Internet,” Goldsmith said.

SegNet was sold in 2011, and is now part of FirstLight. An interest in the makerspace movement helped push Goldsmith and Katz into trying to create one.

Goldsmith says the site’s founders wanted to put the makerspace in White River Junction, Vt., located across the Connecticut River from Lebanon.

That town is a model for what struggling Claremont wants to do. Left with empty commercial buildings due to the shrinking of its mainstay, the railroad industry, White River Junction re-invented itself as an arts center, built around the Tip Top Media and Arts Center and the nationally known Center for Cartoon Studies.

Ironically for Goldsmith, he said White River Junction has been so successful that it has no suitable space left for a makerspace to lease. Hence the search farther afield, ending in Claremont.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)