Grant Supports Study of Potential for Makerspace and Entrepreneurial Center


Feasibility study will engage people across campus and the region to consider how a building on the former Dixon Valve property could be outfitted to benefit both education and local business.

The building being studied has already been useful for the Electric Boat Race Team, which was able to build its latest vessel because of the extra space. The boat is visible behind Brian Palmer, team advisory and director of Washington College's current makerspace, IDEAWORKS Innovation Center.

The building being studied has already been useful for the Electric Boat Race Team, which was able to build its latest vessel because of the extra space. The boat is visible behind Brian Palmer, team advisor and director of Washington College's current makerspace, IDEAWORKS Innovation Center.

For generations, the buildings along the rail-trail at High Street provided good jobs for Chestertown residents, first as Vita Foods and later as the Dixon Valve headquarters and manufacturing plant. Almost four years ago, KRM Development Corp., the real estate division of The Dixon Group, donated the property to Washington College as the company prepared to move to its new, purpose-built campus just north of town. 

Now the College is launching a process to engage members of the greater community in envisioning a collaborative workspace in one existing building on the property that would serve students and members of the public alike as they develop new ideas, build prototypes, and possibly launch small businesses. The space under consideration is a 200-by-80-foot warehouse historically known as the Pipe Yard.

“The vision that is coalescing is not just a makerspace, but an entrepreneurship center. A lot of different possibilities are opened up with this model,” said Charlie Kehm, assistant dean for grants and McLain associate professor of physics and environmental science & studies. Kehm is serving on a working group involving faculty, staff, and community leaders that recently received a grant from the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) to conduct a feasibility study. “We don’t want to presuppose anything. That’s why we have the funding: to figure out what it is going to be. The combination of a makerspace and entrepreneurship center is the guiding principle.” 

The $24,500 grant is funding a year-long process using community meetings and a spring semester class through which students will learn and apply research techniques to investigate what the regional community would like to see. 

The first opportunity for public input will be a community stakeholder meeting at 5 p.m. on Oct. 11 in Sumner Hall at 206 South Queen Street in Chestertown. The conversation is open to the public and participation is encouraged. 

Pat Nugent, Thomas V. Mike Miller director for civic engagement at Washington College, is helping to organize that session and contributing to the spring class. He said he thinks the history and meaning of the site, especially for the nearby Upper Calvert Street neighborhood, a historically African American community, makes it particularly important for the College and its neighbors to imagine together what the space might be.  

“It's an opportunity for the College to plan a space together with community partners—a space that will be vibrant, filled with a diversity of learning and learners, and honor the important history that has taken place there,” Nugent said. “The makerspace is a really important entryway into the larger Dixon Valve campus, which is a wonderful opportunity for the campus and community to come together to plan an economic and cultural magnet for Chestertown and Kent County.”

Creating a space that draws people from throughout the region to town is a goal shared by other members of the working group and by TEDCO itself, which awarded grants to 19 other colleges, economic development organizations, and innovation spaces for makerspace projects across the state when it awarded the funding for a feasibility study to Washington. Created through legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly, the makerspace program that TEDCO is administering aims to grow a state-wide community of makerspaces that provides entrepreneurs with access to tools, technologies and knowledge to support their growth and development as well as expand workforce training. 

Chestertown Mayor David Foster has been a part of the working group that has begun considering opportunities for the College to develop a makerspace and entrepreneurial center. He also focuses on what a fully planned and outfitted space could mean for the region. 

“I am thrilled about the progress of this joint project between Washington College and the people of Chestertown to convert a building no longer in use into a makerspace entrepreneurial center,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty, and community members to collaborate, innovate, and create. I believe this project will foster a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity, and social impact in our region, and I fully support this initiative and look forward to seeing the results.” 

In addition to holding open meetings like the one on Oct. 11, the other main instrument for gauging community interests for the space will be surveys designed and conducted in the spring course, which will be taught by Caddie Putnam Rankin, chair of the Department of Business Management, and Sara Clarke-De Reza, chair of the Education Department. Clarke-De Reza taught a research methods class last spring that will provide a model for this course. 

“We have this understanding across the curriculum, that stakeholders and stakeholder understanding is critical to business success. The best outcomes are when we can get more people working together,” Putnam Rankin said. “This is really the point of having a robust feasibility study: being able to deliver a product at the end that says, ‘these aspects of the makerspace are the most critical.’” 

Brian Palmer is the director of IDEAWORKS Innovation Center, the College’s current makerspace, housed in the Clifton Miller Memorial Library. He has already been using the 16,000-square-foot building at the center of the old Dixon Valve property with the Electric Boat Team he advises to build the trimaran they are racing this year. 

Palmer notes the building is a good fit for an expanded makerspace just from a logistical standpoint, given its added space and infrastructure, with large roll-up doors and electric power in multiple voltages supporting powerful tools that most facilities aren’t set up to support. But like the others from Washington College working on the project, he is keen to allow the community conversation to proceed before firm plans are made, and he sees the potential in adding spaces and services beyond those of a traditional makerspace. 

“Although we have explored and supported student entrepreneurship, this expanded space could interweave this more deliberately and with support from more faculty and staff,” Palmer said. “With an expanded space that could include access for the public in some way, there is potential for our students to gain additional views into the small businesses and innovators who might utilize our new space.” 

However the year-long process of conducting a feasibility study for the space and its potential uses turns out, it is starting with a seemingly universal interest in forging a robust partnership between the College and the larger community, encompassing not just Chestertown but the Upper Shore region. Professor Michael Harvey, who has championed the project as the president's special assistant for strategic initiatives, notes that it has the potential to advance a key point of the College’s strategic plan, which aims to “strengthen relationships with the town, county, and region.” 

“Since its founding, Washington College has been thought of as the ‘college on the hill.’ But it’s also a college in a town, with neighbors across the region,” Harvey said. “This grant will help us work with community partners to create more opportunities for powerful learning and growth — not only for our students, but for people of all ages and backgrounds.”