Iron Range Makerspace Creates a Whole New Type of Economic Opportunity

All week, we're sharing stories of Strong Citizens on the Iron Range. They are neighborhood leaders, small business owners and everyday activists doing their part to make the Range a better place. We hope their stories inspire you to get active in your own community.

Andrew Hanegmon (front left) with his Makerspace cohorts

Andrew Hanegmon (front left) with his Makerspace cohorts

Today we're profiling an organization that fills an economic void in the Iron Range and has the potential to make an enormous positive impact in the Range. It's called the Iron Range Makerspace and it's a new project that will get local entrepreneurs access to space, tools and community. I spoke with Andrew Hanegmon, founder of the Makerspace, about the process of getting started and what he hopes the space will achieve.

Rachel: How did the Iron Range Makerspace get started and what’s the idea behind it?

Andrew: We started at the community college in Virginia, MN, specifically the Iron Range Engineering program. It was my senior project for my engineering degree so I worked with a group of people. Since then, we’ve done maker meetups and we’re in the process of developing our culture and gathering ideas. We’re now at the stage where we’re about to buy a building through a grant.

Rachel: What is your vision for the makerspace?

Andrew: We’ve got a lot of entrepreneurs who don’t network and it’s hard to connect with people. We all work with our hands; we’re all using the same tools. That’s not logical. What we can instead do is have one facility where we pay a monthly fee and then have access to tons of equipment, lots of space, etc. At the makerspace, we hope to have an automotive bay, laser engravers, and carpentry shop. In addition to that, we’re looking to have a commercial kitchen, a stage area so people can do events, classrooms so people can teach workshops, and conference rooms. We’ll also have a retail store out front. We’ll try to connect entrepreneurs with economic development agencies.

It comes down to this: It makes sense. We’re a really rural area and we can’t have one of everything for everyone. But if we pool our resources we can do a lot. 

Rachel: What’s your role in the makerspace?

Andrew: I started the idea and got the ball rolling. I like to think of myself as a facilitator, not the CEO. This concept is not just about one person; we really try to get people to tell us what they want and adapt our plan to that (and to reality, of course).

It started with me and four other engineering students, plus a facilitator at Iron Range Engineering. We began really hitting it hard in August of 2015 with policy updates, sketching out the space, and brainstorming. Each of us spent at least 20 hours a week on it while we were in school. Today, I count over 100 other people who are regularly involved in what we’re doing. We have contacts in economic development organizations. The network drives us. 

Rachel: But you have another full-time job now, right? How do you balance that?

Andrew: Yes, I’m manufacturing supervisor at Detroit Reman - DMR Electronics. I’m going to leverage that salary and pay things off to the best of my ability. I’ll work nights and weekends, and we’ve got other people lined up to work during the days. That’s awesome because it gives the opportunity to develop leadership and management skills. There are certain people we’re going to give opportunities to and we want to make sure that stays with the organization as it grows. The whole idea of a makerspace is sharing. I look forward to those opportunities to let people try it out, run it for a couple days. We’re really trying to give people chances.

Rachel: Are you a for-profit or nonprofit organization? How did you decide which to incorporate as?

Andrew: We are an LLC, not a nonprofit. We did that based on research. I think a lot of makerspaces have higher potential than what they reach. Part of that is due to their command structure—they’re run very flat-level with no one in charge. The concept is sharing, which is admirable, but it doesn’t work well when it’s a business and it needs to function.

We’ve toured a lot of these types of spaces and what we see as the biggest issues are a lack of cleanliness and a lack of familiarity with OSHA regulations. We want to create a place where you can walk in and it’s organized, it’s professional. We want to be able to supplement high school programs and have families come in, so it doesn’t feel like an old grungy shop. We feel that there’s such a high potential if this is implemented at a high standard with the proper management.

Rachel: How do you plan to financially build and sustain the makerspace?

Andrew: Once we're up and running we really need to hit 100 dues-paying members. Once we have that, we’ll be able to sustain the space. Other forms of revenue will be training fees, contract fabrication (we can use the equipment to print t-shirts, etc. on a contract basis), a retail store, and renting out conference rooms.

(Update:  The Makerspace recently achieved one of their start-up goals with a fully funded Kickstarter campaign as well as some outside grants.)

Rachel: Do you have a location yet?

Andrew: The old VFW in Hibbing is our hope. I’m currently working to ensure that I have the capital to back it up and making sure we get the best deal possible. We chose the VFW hall because it’s the most centrally located and hits a large population in a 30 mile range (which is what we’ve discovered, based on research, is how far people will drive to a makerspace).

Our plan is to put in an offer on the building in a month or two. We’re just waiting for some more advice from key people. Once we officially own that building, we want to be up and running, doing our grand opening in three months. It’s ambitious, but we think we can do it. The first week we’re there, we’ll map out the building. Then we’ll have the community come in and give feedback. Then we’ll have a donation drive for equipment. Then we’ll get set up.

Rachel: What are your goals for the Makerspace over the next year? 5 years?

Andrew: The Iron Range economy has these cycles, these ups and downs. We want to make those lulls in our mining cycle a little less, and maybe a lot less down the road. I also envision this being farmed out across the range, like an Anytime Fitness, where you have keycard to access any location. We hope to focus profits back into the business. Once we start making an impact, we’re going to track our successes.

Rachel: What are your hopes for the Iron Range? What needs to change?

Andrew: From my perspective I think the biggest challenge is that we’re very focused on one resource that we know won’t last forever. And on top of that, it goes through very drastic cycles. You can ignore the gravity of the situation when we’re on an upswing, but not for long. It’s not just that the makerspace is doing something great for the community, it’s that the community really needs it. 

Another issue for the range is that, as odd as it sounds, we aren’t really united. You go from Hibbing to Virginia and you’re an outsider. When we go out of the region and go to a sports game, we’re all cheering for the Range, but each town wants to be its own entity so bad that we deter ourselves. One day we’ll be out of resources. I think we really need one center where people can develop their own community. I hope we can offer that with the Iron Range Makerspace.

Congratulations to Andrew and the Iron Range Makerspace for their success on this project to help diversify the Iron Range economy, and best of luck with the next phases.  Read all our Iron Range coverage.

If you're on the Range this week, you can catch Andrew today (Tuesday) on a tour of the future home of the Iron Range Makerspace. He'll also be speaking Thursday at 12pm in Virginia, on a panel entitled, "Building a Strong Economic Development Ecosystem in Your Town."  Finally, Andrew will be featured on the Strong Towns podcast later today.

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