Eastside Neighborhood

The hands-on focus of Kzoo Makers has survived the social-distancing era

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.

The pandemic has not stopped the creative work going on inside the unassuming former warehouse buildings at 1102 E. Michigan Ave. on Kalamazoo’s Eastside.
Despite the quarantining and social distancing that has accompanied the fight against COVID-19 since early 2020, Kzoo Makers has continued to attract creative builders, engineers, artists, and crafters. And in its own way, has been a creative and business boon for some.
“It gave people something to focus on other than just being depressed about being locked down and shut in,” says Alan Hollaway, chairman of the Kalamazoo Innovation Initiative, the nonprofit organization that supports the space. “A lot of our members would make appointments to be in the space and do what they needed to do. It gave them kind of a creative outlet and an ability to keep going.”
Kzoo Makers is a 9,000-square-foot “makerspace,” a light industrial space in two connected buildings that is intended to “support people making the things they want to make, or creating the things they want to create,” Hollaway says.
Matt Chivell, of The Designer Theory, says he discovered that his business could make almost anything at Kzoo Makers. That has helped it expand.The goal of the 5-year-old, volunteer-run facility is to provide creative people with access to tools and knowledge they couldn’t normally maintain or afford on their own. The place has, for instance, five lasers, four 3-D printers, a joiner, a lathe, a SawStop, a finish sander, spindle sanders, planers, two CNC mills, a computer lab, a woodshop, and a metal shop. 
“The tools are kind of the physical draw,” Hollaway says. “But what we try to promote is social interaction among the members.”
Face-to-face, hands-on social interaction has been ill-advised during the COVID shutdown, but it can be a key to success in the creative process.
“If somebody is there trying to do something or work on something and they hit a stopping point, there’s a member there who can help them get through the rough spots,” Hollaway says.
The maker space, whose value was envisioned and promoted by former Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell, needs 40 to 50 fee-paying members to cover its monthly overhead costs. During the pandemic slow-down the number of users sank to the mid-40s, Hollaway says. 
Kzoo Makers attempts to provide creative builders, engineers, artists and crafters with equipment they may not be able to access easily on their own, such as this 3-D printer.But the number has risen and the space now has about 80 members who continue to use it and observe COVID protocols (wearing masks, limiting the number of members inside at any one time, and keeping workspaces clean).
Members pay about $50 per month for access or $550 for an annual pass. They receive a key fob that allows them into the site. A family membership, which allows up two people at a time, is available for $70 per month. And a contract membership for six months of access, paid in advance, is also available. More information is available at kzoomakers.org
Safety is a big focus of the facility. Classes are offered for some machinery and tools and organization members are trained how to use different machines and tools before they can use them on their own. 
Many of the machines – some of which are donated or loaned to Kzoo Makers, would cost thousands of dollars to own says Matt Chivell, who found Kzoo Makers less than nine months ago, but just in time to help him shift from life as a real estate seller to life as a creator of custom furniture, glass etchings and custom gift items made of glass or wood.
“We’re a pandemic business,” Chivell said of his company, The Designer Theory, “I was a real estate agent and real estate was sucky, so I decided to try something that gave me a little bit more joy.”
He said he is not particularly handy and is not an artist, but he likes to make things and has a knack for quickly learning how things work. About a year ago, he and his wife Jackie started doing custom glass etchings and discovered Kzoo Makers when makers facilities in Grand Rapids shut down. 
Kzoo Makers, at 1102 E. Michigan Ave., is intended to support people making the things they want to make or creating the things they want to create.“So we were just doing glass and stuff like that and then we did find this place to try to make our glass (product sales) bigger,” Chivell says. “We discovered that we could make almost anything else that we wanted to. And we expanded our business quite quickly that way.”
The Designer Theory’s most promising products presently are custom-made wood and resin epoxy tables. Colorful epoxy is used in interesting and sometimes odd pieces of wood to make tables, cutting boards, and charcuterie boards. Chivell says a lot of what he has learned, including how to pour epoxy to create the tables, is a result of classes he has taken at Kzoo Makers.
“Each one is like a piece of art because each one is unique in and of itself,” Chivell says. “There’s a lot of different styles we do. Recently we just finished a redwood table. Basically, it’s a piece of redwood tree that we were able to rescue and then we encased it in plastic for a person to have forever. It’s what I like to call functional art.”
Chivell and his wife sell their wares primarily at West Michigan art fairs. They are Grand Rapids residents who commute to Kalamazoo about five days each week to allow Chivell to craft products.
“I went to the store and bought the cheap crap that everybody else bought until you start to learn more about it and how things are put together,” Chivell says. “… That’s where I kind of like started really enjoying learning about it, figuring out how it worked, and putting it together myself.”
Lasers at Kzoo Makers allow members to make etched art products, such as this.Hollaway says Kzoo Makers members are about a 50-50 mix of people who want to create things for their own gratification and those who are trying to produce a product they want to sell.
“A lot of people are interested mainly in doing projects for themselves initially,” Hollaway says. “And some of them go ahead and develop prototypes of things they’re planning and designing. Others use it to support other activities.”
He said there are users who race cars and use the place to make parts and modifications for their vehicles. “And a lot of them just make things because they want to,” he says. “A lot of the woodworkers are in that category. Some of them make products for sale and some don’t. It just depends on what they want to do.”
As an organization, Kzoo Makers encourages people to consider making products they can turn into a business.
Hollaway said the place hung on by its fingernails last year during the COVID-19 shutdown. It was closed for about two months but reopened with limited numbers of people allowed inside the building late last year. It has asked people to wear masks and spaces were routinely cleaned.
“But we got through it OK,” Hollaway says. “People started to come back, masking up and distancing and all the things that we had to do. And we got pretty much back to normal.”
Hollaway is information technology manager for the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. He has a background in aviation maintenance and flying. And he has long toyed with the idea of building his own airplane. He laughs saying, “It fascinates me that I could have access to enough tools to do it.”
“Initially I was interested in 3-D printing and I had done wood-working in the past and I wanted to have access to shop tools,” he says. “Then I got interested in the lasers and cutting and engraving capabilities that the lasers offer. I dabbled in electronics and I was finding it interesting to talk to people who knew more about it than I did. A lot of my interest was in the social aspect. I wanted to be around people who like to build things because I generally tend to learn a lot when I watch people do stuff.”
He said Kzoo Makers continues to support people making things “whether it’s a practical application or just for fun, or art, or to support their hobbies -- however they want to approach it.”
More about Kzoo Makers:

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

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.