Sad but not a surprise: bankruptcy and shutdown of TechShop MakerSpace chain
In my piece, "Arts, culture districts, and revitalization" I argued that cultural infrastructure is comprised of at least five elements:
- Space and facilities;
- Cultural organizations and support networks;
- Cultural-creative businesses;
and we should differentiate between hard (buildings/the physical), squishy (organizations) and soft (people) infrastructure. These five elements—place, space, artists, organizations, and businesses—are the components of cultural clusters or cultural quarters.
I said that artists/artistic disciplines needed to create their own plans (in association with cultural planners) and it was essential for such plans to include a facilities and space element, and I used the Creative City Network of Canada thought paper, Cultural Infrastructure: An Integral Component of Canadian Communities as a starting point.
The paper outlines six types of creative space, and four of the six: multi-use hubs; incubators; multi-sector convergence projects; and production habitats; are anchors, a set of either cross-disciplinary or discipline-specific facilities and programs that support the development of art, artists, partnerships, networking, connections, and cultural production.
Building the capacity of artists and organizations through these types of investment supports local economic and community building objectives, and improves the likelihood of success for all types of cultural initiatives. There are many examples of these types of facilities across North America, although no one community has developed a full set across disciplines.
The CEO of TechShop authored a book, The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers (article).
While I haven't exactly thought through this in all the elements in terms of supporting innovation and business development in the context of "building a local economy" ("Naturally occurring innovation districts | Technology districts and the tech sector," 2014), maker type spaces are an element, as are collaborative workspaces like WeWork, and business incubators of various sorts.
Until the opening of the TechShop in Crystal City a couple years ago, the only one that I really knew of in the area is the Woodworkers Club in Rockville. I'm not a woodworker, but when we were installing a new kitchen in 2008, we took the butcher block counter top there to be cut, because we needed a highly precise cut that a typical radial saw couldn't necessarily produce. They've managed to stay open for 21 years.
While no one reasonable (cf. Artisphere in Arlington County) would expect these kinds of spaces to be wildly profitable, because the modern maker movement is a spinoff of the digital economy, people had different expectations concerning large scale maker spaces.
The very cool Third Ward project in Brooklyn (and for a time in Philadelphia) went belly up pretty quickly ("Why Did 3rd Ward Close?," Observer), because "investors" were looking for quick returns.
As reported by the Washington Business Journal ("TechShop to declare bankruptcy, shuts down suddenly") it seems that a similar problem has developed for TechShop, a digital and analog makerspace with ten locations across the country, including in Crystal City.
-- TechShop history document
When a sort of nonprofit but technically for profit space in Philadelphia, Philadelphia Sculpture Gym shut down a couple years ago, I lamented that the Philadelphia nonprofit and arts community didn't step in to ensure its continuation, unlike how the Baltimore arts community rallied and saved Baltimore Clayworks, after its board had voted to shut down; "Baltimore Clayworks to reopen with new board, old debt," Baltimore Sun).
Note that libraries have been getting into the maker space movement, but the spaces tend to be pretty simple compared to a TechShop, with a 3D printer or two and some graphic design software applications and workstations but probably not CAD and related software. According to the WBJ, the TechShop is pretty elaborate:
With more than $1 million in equipment and software and up to 70 classes each week, TechShop gave access to industrial equipment too expensive for many people and early-stage businesses, for $150 per month or $1,650 for the year. The 22,000-square-foot Crystal City location, with 2016 revenue of nearly $1.5 million and a goal of 20 percent year-over-year growth in 2017, opened in April 2014 and had 700 members.But I can't see how gross revenue of $1.5 million is nearly enough to run such a facility, let alone provide economic returns to investors.
While it is common for city and county economic development agencies to create and support "business incubators" of various types ("Where entrepreneurs work: Inside D.C.'s business incubators," Washington Post), such agencies ought to begin thinking about creating and operating larger scale maker spaces like the equivalent of TechShop, to help foster business development and innovation within the local business and research ecosystem, as a capacity building element of business infrastructure and entrepreneurship development.
Such facilities can help to brand communities as pro-"maker".
Recommendation. Ideally, the Arlington County Economic Development agency and the Crystal City Business Improvement District could step in and possibly acquire the assets of the Crystal City branch of TechShop, and continue the operation as an element of the county's commitment to supporting local business development. From the WBJ article:
The company’s site also links to a form for individuals, organizations or institutions interested in acquiring its assets or one of its locations.Baring action by Arlington County, another jurisdiction should swoop in, buy all the equipment, and set up a similar operation.
In DC, I'd consider doing that at the Walter Reed campus, Howard University, Catholic University, or at the St. Elizabeths East Campus, as a way to seed its redevelopment.
In Silver Spring, it could be something the County could do with Montgomery College (see item #16, "Positioning Silver Spring as an innovation district and/or an Ecodistrict," "PL #5: Creating a Silver Spring "Sustainable Mobility District" | Part 3: Program items 10-18").
In New Carrollton, it would be a way to seed a new direction for that Prince George's County city ("Setting the stage for the Purple Line light rail line to be an overwhelming success: Part 4 | Making over New Carrollton as a transit-centric urban center and Prince George's County's "New Downtown"").