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Creative District moving forward as NextFab settles on its home there

After a year and a half of steadily plodding forward, Wilmington’s Creative District achieved a significant objective this week, as Philadelphia-based NextFab agreed to terms on a lease to locate a branch of its “Gym for Innovators” in a 10,000-square-foot horseshoe-shaped building at Fifth and Tatnall streets.

NextFab’s site selection caps a summer of progress that included the completion of several murals associated with what has been labeled the Seventh Street Art Bridge and completion of the first residence in the Willing Street Artist Village.

“We’re more than on track,” says Carrie W. Gray, managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, which has led the planning and oversight of the Creative District, bordered by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets. The project’s overall goals are to revitalize a neighborhood just west of Wilmington’s Market Street commercial and entertainment corridor and to provide a viable link to the West Center City area, just west of Washington Street.

“We have to take the opportunities as they come. Not everything can be accomplished right out of the gate, but we’ve been ticking off our goals,” says Laura Semmelroth, Wilmington Renaissance’s Creative District strategist.

Ever since Wilmington Renaissance unveiled the Creative District master plan in early 2015, it has touted NextFab as an essential component for the district’s long-term success. Gray likes to describe NextFab as “a high school woodshop on steroids.”

"We have to take the opportunities as they come. Not everything can be accomplished right out of the gate, but we've been ticking off our goals." - Laura Semmelroth, Wilmington Renaissance's Creative District strategist.

Financed in part by a $350,000 start-up grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office, NextFab’s satellite site in Wilmington will offer many of the attractions that have already tempted Delaware crafters to visit its space in Philadelphia. Members will pay monthly fees, ranging from $49 to $359, depending on anticipated usage, for access to a warehouse filled with woodworking and metalworking tools, with a layer of 21st-century technology on top – things like  3D and large-format printers, CAD software and laser cutters. The Wilmington site may also offer private office space and business incubation services, NextFab President Evan Malone said.

NextFab had been eying a smaller building at 807 West Street, but backed off when it could not secure a lease with a long enough term to make its investment in the property viable, Malone said.

“There’s a significant amount of work to be done” to get the building at 501-509 Tatnall St. in shape, Malone said. If there are no snags in securing construction permits from the City of Wilmington, the facility could open in early 2017. If there are permitting delays, the opening could be pushed back to next spring, he said.

“NextFab will be a really big thing,” Gray says, noting that “it can be a link with The Mill, 1313 Innovation and Start it Up Delaware,” three downtown co-working spaces that have become home to “entrepreneurs who might need objects made, some widgets, some prototypes.”

NextFab also announced that it has arranged a partnership with Wilmington University, opening the facility to students enrolled in the school’s new “maker certificate” program in its College of Technology.

“Deeply rooted in STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] initiatives and philosophy, the Maker Certificate aims to create critical thinkers that can implement solutions using technology. The Maker Certificate fosters innovation, collaboration, and problem solving. These skills and ideals will be enhanced through access to and learning experiences obtained with NextFab,” said Mary Ann Westerfield, dean of the College of Technology.

Construction of the Creative District’s first housing initiative, the Willing Street Artist Village, a community of three single-family homes and eight condos along Fifth, Sixth and Washington streets, has taken a little longer than anticipated, but “a lot of structural issues” were uncovered as Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware began rehabbing the buildings, Gray said.

“It was mostly floor and ceiling joists that had rotted and some exterior walls that needed better support,” said Gary Pollio, Interfaith’s executive director. “When properties have been vacant and abandoned for decades, it’s not surprising that they begin to deteriorate.”

As problems were discovered in the first units being rehabbed, Interfaith called in a structural engineer to inspect all the properties, he said. The structural issues “put us back a month or two,” he added.

More than $1 million in grants from the state’s Downtown Development District program and the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Strong Neighborhoods Fund are helping underwrite the $2.3 million project. Those subsidies will help keep the units affordable, with prices likely to range from $50,000 and up for a one-bedroom condo to about $145,000 for the largest single-family home, Pollio said. The first single-family home, at 413 West Fifth St., has been completed, but full-scale marketing won’t begin until five nearby units are completed in about two months, Pollio said. Five more units should be completed and ready for sale in the spring.  

Interfaith Housing is now looking to assemble properties for a second phase of housing within the Creative District, in the area bordered by Fifth, Tatnall, Seventh and West streets. Pollio said this grouping could include four or five single-family homes, several rental units and a gallery space that could host art shows and small public events.

While the housing initiative is slightly behind schedule, Creative District mural projects have been completed on time.

In May and June, muralist Eric Okdeh, with help from veterans, created the Veterans Freedom Mural, now affixed to the wall of Marcella’s House, a transitional house for 31 homeless veterans at the corner of Ninth and Washington streets.

Credit Wilmington Renaissance Corp.
Wilmington Renaissance Corp.
Creative District's Inspire Lot on 7th st. between Tatnall and Orange streets.

Brothers Corei and Crae Washington, who paint under the Smashed Label brand, have created a 60- by 20-foot mural on the cinder block wall of a parking lot at Seventh and Tatnall streets. Across the street, between Tatnall and Orange streets, Wilmington Renaissance has established the Inspire Lot, a small parking lot by day that serves as a pop-up park for evening and weekend events. One recent event featured the Juke Bench, a wooden bench built by the Challenge Program, which trains at-risk youth in the construction trades, and accessorized by the Barrel of Makers crafters group with LED lighting and sound equipment. The bench makes music; all it takes is to have two people holding hands while using their other hands to press on the electronic contacts on the arms of the bench.

“We had 12 people holding hands, completing a circle and it made music,” Semmelroth said. “It’s a subtle lesson about collaborating, making music together and a community coming together.”

Nearing completion are a sculpture garden by Andre Hinton that will be installed in the parking lot at Seventh and Tatnall and a mural at Seventh and Windsor streets. Youngsters at the Hicks Anderson Community Center in West Center City are helping artist Terrance Vann with the mural. Both projects should be completed in October.

Some projects underway in the Creative District have been launched independently of Wilmington Renaissance.

The Christina Cultural Arts Center, in the 600 block of Market Street, has contracted with the Creative Vision Factory, a state-funded program that provides a studio art environment to bolster the creative potential of individuals on the behavioral health spectrum, to create a 14-foot-high mosaic mural on the back wall of its building, facing Shipley Street.

Earlier this year, the group created a smaller mural alongside a garden at the Rick Van Story Resource Center, along Martin Luther King Boulevard at Justison Street.

It has also made a mural of mirror tiles for a stairway at Artist Ave Station, a shared workspace for artists and creatives that opened earlier this year at 800 Tatnall St.

“I’ve always believed that our natural growth pattern would bring an organic creative district,” with or without a master plan, said Michael Kalmbach, executive director of the Creative Vision Factory. “We’re a place to drop in, to hang out, and we’re putting people to work.”

"People are way more open to it. They're seeing that it can work." - John Naughton, co-owner of Artist Ave Station

John Naughton, a co-owner of Artist Ave Station, said the space now has three fulltime members who use the facility to create their art and sell their products. The space is open for Wilmington’s monthly art loops and for other special events.

In addition, Naughton said, Artist Ave Station is offering a four-week class on “the business of art” that attracted 15 registrants – enough to require relocating the sessions to a conference room at The Mill, the new co-working space two blocks to the north.

The opening of Artist Avenue Station “was a huge step,” since it was the first instance of entrepreneurs opening a new business within the Creative District, Semmelroth said. “There’s not another Artist Ave station yet. But I think the next one will beget the next one and the next one, and it will multiply.”

Although others haven’t talked about it much, Leonard Sophrin, Wilmington’s planning director, believes development in the Creative District will bring more attention to the long-neglected Fifth Street. Sophrin hopes linkages can develop among the diverse organizations whose buildings hopscotch along Fifth Street – from the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center on King Street to the Hicks Anderson Community Center at Fifth and Madison streets. In between are the Queen Theater, La Fia restaurant, the Salvation Army, the NextFab site, St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Quaker Meetinghouse, the Willing Street Artist Village and Tabernacle Full Gospel Baptist Church.

“With those institutions collaborating, there’s great potential for community engagement,” he said.

This summer’s activity, especially along the Seventh Street Art Bridge, has increased interest in the Creative District concept, Naughton said. “People are way more open to it,” he said. “They’re seeing that it can work.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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