The Reality Factory: Where working together helps dreams come true

An incident at The Reality Factory highlights the benefits of business incubators, in which widely dissimilar businesses can help each other out.

Daniel Kastner of 1977 Mopeds/Indigan  was talking bikes in the moped shop of the old Northside Kalamazoo factory building that also houses Grayling Ceramics and educational nonprofit RAWK (Read and Write Kalamazoo).

Kastner's Indigan Trail Roller, a moped minus the engine, had just gotten national attention from WIRED Magazine. It's the first new moped in about 30 years. Could it also be the only American-made moped?

There were a couple U.S.-made bikes in the '70s and '80s, he says. Since Indigan assembles theirs from imported and U.S. made parts, with key components they make here, it's tricky coming up with the correct terminology, but they can call it "a product of Kalamazoo" he figures..."DAN!" a voice yells from deep in the basement.

Kastner runs. The voice yells, "Yo, man, I need your bat-man skills!"

There is a bat lurking in the basement shop of Grayling Ceramics. 

"I thought you were murdered," Kastner tells ceramist Shay Church.

"Dan's a master bat-catcher," Church explains.

Kastner says he learned the ways of the bat in an old infested house on South Street in the '90s. That's also where he learned the ways of the moped.

Not The Fantasy Factory

In the late '90s Kastner lived on South Street with a bunch of other college students who called themselves the Moped Army, a geekier version of a biker gang. Using a new thing at the time, called the Internet, the group made a website and Moped Army chapters popped up around the country. There was a national re-discovery of the old two-stroke bikes.

Kastner started 1977 Mopeds to meet the demand for old bikes, parts, and repair. It grew from a shop on the Kalamazoo Mall to stores in San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago, and Kastner moved to the West Coast. 

"We were selling mopeds. It was awesome," Kastner says. "Then the Great Recession hit." As cheap, fuel-efficient transportation, the bikes jumped in popularity. But no new ones were being made, and more people were riding than selling bikes, so the supply of old bikes for 1977 to re-sell dried up. They closed stores and went online-only. Kastner, wife Emily Kastner, and new son Jack moved back to Kalamazoo to face reality. 

But he soon started dreaming of a shop and of a way to deal with this lack-of-new-mopeds conundrum. In 2012, he and Jeb Gast were dreaming of making new bikes and shopping around for old factories in Kalamazoo.

Gast (who now is working on his Fido electric scooter in the Edison neighborhood) had found one that was "amazing, this huge old paper factory, beautiful, move-in ready," Kastner says. "We called it the fantasy factory, because it was so unbelievable. But it was so much money that we had to settle for reality."

He gestures around him. "This is the reality." 

Dreams made in The Reality Factory

Tenants came and went, but the Factory has stayed in business for three years now.

RAWK, "near to my heart" since his wife Emily is co-founder, Kastner says, has been there since September 2014.

"We really like the space," Anne Hensley, the other co-founder, says from RAWK's classroom-like area. "Students get in here and are inspired by a beautiful and interesting space.... Eventually we're going to have to find our own home, but for now this is ideal."

Kastner and Hensley had founded RAWK in 2012, and shared office space with the Vine Neighborhood Association. They quickly outgrew that. What began as one small summer camp workshop to inspire kids to read and write grew into a grant-funded nonprofit with an advisory board of 14 local educators and community members. They hold camps, workshops, in-school programming, and reading events.

Extracurricular education for elementary students, mopeds, and ceramics -- are connections what is being made at this Factory? "There's a creative spirit going on here, definitely. And support. If I don't understand something about my website, I can ask Dan, because he's got a lot more experience. Shay's presence is in art and inspiration," she says. "There's always someone else here working diligently on their own projects and their own livelihood, and that is inspiring to be surrounded by that." 

Grayling has been there since September 2014. Through Kickstarter, Church funded two kilns which birth growlers for Michigan's booming brewery industry, plus mugs, and other items. His growlers are sold around the state, from Rupert's Brew House in Kalamazoo to Jolly Pumpkin in Ann Arbor and Mackinaw Brewing in Traverse City.

"The joke is, Dan is the only one in the building with a ceramics degree," Church says, laughing. 

They'd met through ceramics studies at Western Michigan University, went their separate ways, then reunited in Kalamazoo as they found themselves in the same boat -- older, with families, but still looking to make something out of their passions. 

"We're a similar age, both have kids, the nonprofit was here -- I like the energy, we all have a similar push to make our ideas come to fruition," he says.

"Almost to a fault, we're always talking about what we're thinking about next, bouncing ideas off each other. It's a crucial reason why I'm here." 

Northside's past and present reality

Church proved his motivation. Before he put in the kilns, he had to clear out over a century of industrial debris. "This basement was completely trashed," he says.

The building was part of a larger 1890s factory complex that made "ladies underthings," Kastner says, the French Garment Co. It went on to make skirts, then rugs, then casting patterns for aluminum parts. It last housed H&P Pattern & Mfg., but had been empty for five years when Kastner spotted it.

"I would just ride my bicycle around this neighborhood, looking for buildings." When it showed up on Craigslist for a steal, he nabbed it.

The other industrial buildings he looked at, "they're all knocked down, now. You turn your back for a second and it's gone."

His factory "was so far gone you couldn't get a traditional loan for it, because there was no collateral value. There was nothing to back it, basically."

Inside "everything was crumbling and breaking," with walls made of  "this weird rotten chipboard." He had to clear out old metal and woodworking machinery, stabilize the structure, replace floors and ceilings, repair water damage, get new windows. He replaced the electrical system because "one outlet was just smoking randomly." 

"The basement was the worst. It was really gross," Kastner says.

In the now-clean (but invaded by the occasional bat) basement, Church reveals that they're plotting the next phase of the Factory. "We want it to be a destination... be a part of the community," he says.  

The Northside has many lots formerly or currently places of industry, some active, some blighted. It's also a predominately African-American residential neighborhood that's rarely mentioned in local media unless a crime has occurred there.

"There's definitely a stigma" attached to the neighborhood, Kastner says. When he returned to Kalamazoo after living in San Francisco, "it felt like the city had changed a little bit. Or I had changed a little bit, too. (Now) it's just another neighborhood." 

"The neighbors have been awesome." Neighbors watch out for them -- and the worst  problem in their three years was when a kid shot some windows with a BB gun. "I know I shot up my fair share of windows with BB guns" growing up in the small town of Sturgis, Kastner says.

The Factory's doors are open to all 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, but  "there's no reason for the public to come" yet, Kastner says. He hopes to make the building an Art Hop stop, turn the lobby into a gallery/display/retail area with a coffee bar, and hold events. And as soon as the bike passes EPA regulations -- the two-stroke engine is sold separately, now -- Kastner hopes to see Indigans buzzing out of the shop.

Church notes that they're just three blocks north of Kalamazoo Avenue. They'd like to bring the activity of downtown Kalamazoo to the Northside, he says. "We see a lot of potential here.”

Mark Wedel has been a Kalamazoo-based freelance journalist since 1992. 

All photos at The Reality Factory are by Mark Wedel.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.