Eastside Neighborhood

Kzoo Makers: A model for Eastsiders to make what they have into what they want

Eastsiders who pass the Kzoo Makers sign at 1102 E. Michigan every day may not be aware of what treasures lie within the sprawling building on the corner.

Once a warehouse for storing oddments from property foreclosures, the structure, owned by member Mike Cunningham, now houses a well-appointed woodshop, welding station, fiber arts studio, electronics area, computer classroom, several 3-D printers, and even a Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized micro-computer.

All told, there’s 9,000 square feet of state-of-the-art equipment, over $100,000 worth, all with an emphasis on safety, just waiting to be used for a $50 a month membership and adherence to the makerspace policies. 

“We don’t just have tools off the shelf at Home Depot. You have to special order these tools, like the laser cutter, but having them gives people the opportunity to make stuff that would otherwise be unattainable,” says Scott Cleveland, a contractor who discovered Kzoo Makers last year and now frequently brings his 10-year-old daughter to work on projects with the 3D printer. And yes, youth are welcomed if supervised by a knowledgeable adult.

“We’re a place where people who are inclined to make things can do so and also meet like-minded people,” says Ron Schubot, the first official Kzoo Makers lifetime member. “I wish something like this was around 30 or 40 years ago.”

Schubot, who works in IT at Western Michigan University, has long been interested in the maker movement, first as a part of local Maker Meetups, then with the Kalamazoo Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit supported by Mayor Bobby Hopewell to help launch a Kalamazoo makerspace after Hopewell was inspired by a conference he attended in Washington, D.C. 

The 60 members of Kzoo Makers share a love of making.As the electronics zone leader, Schubot has donated many tools and a lot of equipment to the space, as have other members, and is a constant presence for those who might have electronic questions.

“We make the space available for people who want to use it,” says Schubot, who adds you can find him there most nights, sometimes tinkering and sometimes just being available. “Location-wise, we’re as close as you want to be without being in downtown, on a bus line, easily accessible.”

The amount of equipment, of course, is impressive, but the most valuable resource of Kzoo Makers is the people who join bringing along a wide array of specializations, expertise, and interests, says Al Holloway, a founding member, and technical resources manager at the Air Zoo.

“A lot of people, when they learn about us, think of all the equipment,” says Holloway. “But the real value here is the people who are members. They are the real resources. 

“There’s a lot of collaboration that goes on here on an informal level,” he says. “People sit around and talk about what they’re working on. Everyone down here is a mentor at some level. The sharing of ideas usually leads to some kind of solution.”

Welcome to the Nerd Cave: Makers wear the badge proudly

“We’re all nerds, geeks, and freaks,” says Cleveland. “Everyone wears those labels like a badge.”

After learning about Kzoo Makers on a camping trip last year, Cleveland was excited to find out what the organization was all about. He hadn’t even taken a tour before he said, “Sign me up.”

“For folks who know what it’s about, as soon as they find it, it’s a no-brainer.”

But what is a maker? Cleveland’s short answer is “artisan hacker.”

And what is a hacker? “People think hacking just applies to computers,” says Cleveland. “That’s not true. Look at the world, poke it, and make it into what you want.”

“A hacker is when a person takes what they have and makes it into something new,” adds Stacy Belinsky, who’s been around the maker world for years as a founding member of Hacker Gals and a regular attendee at statewide Maker Faires. “Whenever you modify something, you hack it, whether it’s a recipe that calls for butter, but you use oil. That’s hacking, too.”

Over the past 13 years, with the advent of Make magazine in 2005, maker movements and spaces have been growing around the United States. The maker world is a contemporary technology-based DIY subculture that involves craft, artisanship and a can-do spirit. A social movement, the maker culture is dedicated not only to creativity, through technology and tools, but to collaboration.

Colleen Woolpert has designed a stereoscope that creates an illusion of depth.Cleveland points to a member’s 3D printer hack, a modified and smaller functioning 3-D printer that was created by a member based on the makerspace’s large $18,000 3-D printer. The small one was made for $600. “These are the kinds of ideas that are fostered all over the country in places like this,” says Cleveland. “Groups like this lead people to ask, ‘How can I take my idea to the next level?’ It opens your mind to be around that kind of energy.”

Recently enamored with computer-assisted design (CAD), Cleveland created what would have been a $180 hand tool had he purchased it outright. “Making my own tools is something I never would have thought was possible,” he says. “The democratization of technology is so crazy right now.”

The democratization of technology, like the democratization of information, arguably has its pluses and minuses, but at Kzoo Makers, it’s all plus—fully embraced—as long as the technology is used actively and not passively. That means, brains devising and hands creating. 

“It’s about showing people that they really are creative,” says Belinsky. “They just need to start practicing again.”

Kzoo Makers invites the public

While the first couple of years were spent fixing up the space, adding classrooms, accruing equipment, and stabilizing finances, Holloway says the organization is ready to move into a growth phase now that membership is steady at 60, having grown 20 percent over the past year. 

To spread the word, each Saturday at 4:30 p.m., the makerspace offers tours, an opportunity to see the facility and speak with members and zone leaders and catch the vibe.

“We’re really proud of our facility and we hope that more groups and more people learn about us,” says Holloway. “When we were conceptualizing all this, we intended to become a resource for the community, a place where people could come and maybe even develop an idea for a business, but right now we’re attracting more makers.”

Over the last couple of years, Kzoo Makers has rented the space to local groups, including a Linux Group, which works with an open-sourced free network that is an alternative to Windows and IOS, a homeschool class, fiber arts classes, 4-H groups, and most recently the Hackett Irish Robotics Team. The nonprofit welcomes more groups, organizations and instructors to use the space. 

And the Kzoo Makers board would like to keep educating the public on who and what they are.

“Just on a philosophical level, we aren’t looking for a profit,” says Holloway. “If someone wants to come here and earn money to teach a class, we don’t have a problem with that. The students learn, the teacher makes some money, we get some exposure, and almost always, we get one or two members out of that so everyone is happy.

“Besides I’ve been able to observe classes of all kinds, and it’s great fun.”

Kzoo Makers are making things

One member developed special stereo speakers in a round enclosure, another member, Jason Preuss, designed a 12-foot grandfather clock with a 3D printer. Some members are into Cosplay, and have modeled swords after those used in computer games, another member built a wood replica of an aircraft radial engine. 

A member designed and built this model of an airplane's radial engineA group of members is currently working on a large bench that, when finished, will be auctioned off to support the space. 

Members seem to delight in sharing skills, says Cleveland, who has learned to sew by taking a class offered by one of the members. “Now I’m fixing my own clothes,” he says. 

In a few months, don’t be surprised if you see a 12-foot Adirondack chair sitting in front of the Kzoo Makers building, a symbol the board decided represents the maker spirit because it’s hand-made and whimsical. 

Makers like to have fun. Years ago in Make magazine, an article included plans for the giant Adirondack as an enjoyable project “because sitting on one with your legs dangling down, you appear tiny.” While makers can be practical, often, the excitement for them is in seeing a wild, outside-of-the-box idea come to fruition.

Inside this long white building, just inside the boundary of the Eastside, a clan of makers are finding solutions to problems in ways that are innovative, collaborative, and often surprisingly affordable. Isn’t that the type of energy every urban neighborhood needs, especially if it’s seeking to revive?

“Making things reaches a core in people,” says Holloway. “This country is known for industrial development. The whole country, for the last 200 years, has been about making things. And people still like to do that.”

“To see places like this arise from the industrial ashes and the after-effects of globalization,” says Cleveland. “It’s just amazing.”

To take a tour, attend a 3D printing class ($35 for non-members), or find out more about the space, visit the Kzoo Makers website  For more about the Kzoo Makers, please visit here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.