The three-and-a-half-year courtship is over. It’s time to let the creativity begin.
NextFab, the Philadelphia-based “gym for innovators,” will open next Thursday in downtown Wilmington, providing the most significant brick and mortar evidence that the city’s Creative District is more than murals and pocket parks.
With an an eye-popping array of woodworking tools too sophisticated to find a place in a basement workshop, topped by a layer of 21st-century technology, the 10,000-square-foot building at Fifth and Tatnall streets will offer crafters a playground where they can transform their dreams into reality, and maybe even launch a new business.
It will even have a Wazer, a desktop waterjet cutter, something not yet available at NextFab’s two Philadelphia sites. It uses a high-powered stream of tap water mixed with a garnet abrasive to cut through materials up to an inch thick - depending on the material, according to marketing manager Laate Olukotun.
“This should be a bellwether for anyone considering locating in the Creative District, for those who aren’t sure what’s going on, who don’t want to be the Lone Ranger,” says Carrie Gray, managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, which has been spearheading redevelopment planning for the area bounded by Market, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets. “They have taken a corner that’s been quiet for several years and are bringing it back to life.”
Gray and other Creative District advocates began courting NextFab in December 2013, but it took a $350,000 start-up grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office two years later to bring NextFab to Wilmington. Finding and acquiring a site took another six months, and renovations to the building have taken nearly a year.
NextFab members consist of “a mix of beginners and seasoned, knowledgeable craftspeople,” says location manager Kate Brown. “Our collaborative nature helps people develop their own ideas and see attainable goals.”
The outdoor sign isn’t ready yet, and workers were still putting the finishing touches on the interior and installing equipment this week, but there is already ample evidence of NextFab’s allure and its potential.
Entering the building, visitors see a reception desk featuring the NextFab logo designed by NextFab member Peter Brown and carved on a 3D cutter at NextFab’s main site in Philadelphia. The ground floor features a large woodshop on one end and a laser-electronics shop on the other, with an open area suitable for small conferences in the middle. On the first and second floors are a half-dozen incubator spaces – private rooms designed for use by startup businesses – and a larger classroom area. The third floor remains open for now. Olukotun says the large open space could be used by crafters working on large projects, or it might eventually be sectioned off for individual or small group use.
Until now, the most significant business development within the Creative District was the opening of Artist Ave Station, a co-working space and gallery for artists at the corner of Eighth and Tatnall. “There will be more announcements within the year,” Gray promises.
One of those scouting for space in the district is Zach Phillips, creative director of the Short Order Production House, the video production business formerly known as The Kitchen. In only two years, the business has already outgrown its space in the Wilmington Train Station. “I’m bullish on Wilmington. As a small city, it’s like a perfect little downtown. Everything is close,” he says. “And, in the Creative District, you’re only one block from everybody else.”
With The Mill, a small business coworking space in the Nemours Building just outside the Creative District, NextFab six blocks to the south and Artist Ave Station practically at their midpoint, Tatnall Street may be shaping up as the spine of the Creative District. “This is a pretty significant presence,” Gray says.
There are a handful of vacant storefronts in between those sites, but that’s the reason for the redevelopment effort.
Meanwhile, work on the Willing Street Artists Village, 12 rehabilitated townhouses and condominiums just west of NextFab, is nearing completion. A buyer has already moved into the first of those homes and the others should go on the market in a couple of months, Gray says.
Following the completion of several murals last summer, two more murals along the Seventh Street Arts Bridge, a multimedia connector between Market Street and the West Center City neighborhood beyond the Creative District, will be finished by the end of June, as will a pocket park on Eighth Street between Tatnall and West, Gray says.
NextFab’s opening is building excitement among Wilmington’s small but growing crafting community.
“I think it’s great. They have a lot of equipment that we can’t afford,” says Jessi Taylor, president of Wilmington’s Barrel of Makers, a community-oriented makers group whose members use the woodshop in the Highlands Art Garage, not far from Trolley Square, for some of its meetings. With its 3D cutters and laser tools, NextFab has “a level of intricacy that we don’t have,” she says.
Indeed, NextFab, in addition to combine digital technology with traditional tools to find cutting-edge ways to make things and solve problems, provides access to education, events and professional services to help makers at any skill level achieve their goals. Members have access to an online portal that, besides letting them register for classes and schedule equipment use, includes a discussion forum and a jobs board so they can get help with their projects or assist others who need help with their own work.
Before using any equipment at NextFab, new members take an orientation class to learn safety procedures and how the various tools work. It’s a hands-on learning experience – participants can go home with a cutting board they’ve made by cutting, planing, joining, gluing and sanding strips of wood in varying lengths and widths.
More skilled crafters have used NextFab to launch their own creative businesses. Olukotun offers two examples from Philadelphia: mapmaker Emma Fried-Cassorla, who uses laser cutters to create delicate wooden square-block images of Philadelphia streets for her Philly Love Notes business, and Ryan Hyde, who makes electric guitars – the body, the pickups, the headstock, and even the electronics, at NextFab.
“With NextFab, the Mill, and hopefully us in the Creative District soon, I think we’ve got the potential to spin out a lot of new businesses, not just one or two,” says Phillips, the Short Order creative director.
Some Barrel of Makers participants have previously become NextFab members in Philadelphia and more will likely join to take advantage of the more convenient Wilmington location, Taylor says. She says she has been pleased with the friendly relationships that are developing between the NextFab team and members of the Delaware community. “I’ll be meeting with them soon to discuss ways that we can collaborate,” she says.
“NextFab is something a lot of people don’t have top of mind,” Phillips says. “But if you look at all the objects we’re surrounded by, you start to realize these are things you can make. NextFab can inspire people to say, ‘I really like this, and maybe I can make one of those.’ If you can imagine it, you can build it.”
Phillips isn’t quite ready to join NextFab yet. He’s too busy nailing down a location in the Creative District for his growing business. But, he says, “I have a lot of messy notes about things I’d like to make, and NextFab will be the perfect place to do it.”
NextFab Wilmington, at 501-509 Tatnall Street, will be open from 2 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Membership rates range from $49 to $299 per month, depending on usage, with a discount equal to two monthly payments for a full-year membership. A pilot membership, covering classes only, is available for $19 a month. Members can use NextFab’s two Philadelphia sites as well as the Wilmington facility.
Class schedules will be posted on the NextFab website.
Free parking will be available after 4:30 p.m. weekdays and all day Saturday in the Colonial Parking lot at Fifth and Orange streets.