Area 59 Makerspace Sparking Creativity in Gillette

Friday, March 08, 2019

Economic diversification is critical to the future of rural America. Many communities around the nation have learned hard lessons about being dependent on one or two major industries. Such reliance leaves small towns and their citizens vulnerable to market fluctuations and economic downturns.

A promising effort to diversify the economy in Gillette, Wyoming launched in October of 2018. The Area 59 Center for Innovation & Fabrication at Gillette College was made possible by a powerful public and private partnership. Its goal is to spark creativity and entrepreneurism.

Gillette has long been known as a coal town. After one of the latest rounds of coal mine layoffs, it was classified as an impacted community, which helped it to qualify for federal economic development funds.Area 59Photos Courtesy of Area 59

Partnering for Growth

Area 59’s Director Ian Scott notes that Gillette College had been having conversations about the need for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and resources to help drive innovation in the region. A federal grant proposal to build Area 59, Wyoming’s biggest makerspace, at the college was ultimately successful.

The $1.5 million grant required Gillette College to come up with matching funds. Securing the match was a testament to the community’s strong support for the project. Local philanthropists, the Hladky brothers, stepped up to donate land and a building. Additional private donations were used to renovate the building, which used to house a tire store.

Grant funds enabled the purchase of a range of equipment. The makerspace features high tech tools such as 3D printers, a 3D scanner, laser cutters/etchers, computers and design software. It is also equipped with wood and metal shops. The tools housed in the space allow users to make just about anything.

Scott notes there is great value in the “tinkering process” of creatively working through an idea, especially when one has access to sophisticated tools and is surrounded by a community of people with a diversity of expertise.

Companies like General Electric are now investing in makerspaces because they’re beginning to understand that innovation and creativity thrive in nimble environments where there’s the flexibility to retool and refine prototypes on a small scale.

“You walk in to Area 59 with a big idea or concept on a napkin, design a product with computer aided design software, 3D print it and even create packaging for it,” says Scott.

Scott says those who had a hand in building the space may have “preconceived ideas of what it Area 59 might be,” but points out that members will help determine the vision. “What can be done here is so fluid and malleable. Everyone who walks through the space sees it in a different light.”

Business and Community Impact

While Area 59 serves Gillette College Science, Technology, Engineering and Math students and it hosts STEM camps for youth, it is also open to businesses and the community at large.

Scott says the public has responded well to the makerspace. It draws a wide range of people, from a student robotics club to retired people coming in to learn new skills and entrepreneurs building prototypes.

Try it TuesdayPhotos Courtesy of Area 59

On the first Tuesday of each month Area 59 hosts an event called “Try it Tuesday” where the public is invited to visit the space and participate in educational projects. In January, they shot off paper rockets. Scott says the event is powerful because it draws in a diverse demographic and intergenerational knowledge. “Everyone from 6-yr-olds to retired, married couples are all working on the same project.”

Area 59 groupPhotos Courtesy of Area 59

The makerspace offers student, individual, family and corporate memberships. The goal is for memberships to sustain the facility and equipment. Several businesses, such as L&H Industrial and Sign Boss, have signed on and are taking advantage of the tools already.

Area 59 aligns well with Energy Capital Economic Development’s mission to stimulate and facilitate a diverse economy. The nonprofit just secured a membership for its FUEL Business Incubator tenants. CEO Phil Christopherson sees the facility as a wonderful resource to help small businesses grow and help people develop products.

Those starting a business can “pretty much build any small thing they want to, including design, product development and even manufacturing,” says Christopherson.

Jeff Bumgarner is executive director of the PRECorp Foundation and vice president of member service at PRECorp, which is also a member of Area 59 and is committed to improving the communities it serves. “I see it as a valuable tool to encourage entrepreneurs, bolster the area’s economy and help leverage new technologies for the cooperative,” he says.

Powder River Energy Corporation (PRECorp) is known as northeastern Wyoming’s preferred energy provider. The nonprofit cooperative also works diligently with its member owners to improve the communities it serves. PRECorp has developed powerful partnerships with private, public and nonprofit organizations. These collaborative efforts aim to strengthen communities and create a more diverse economy.

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