Inside/Outside: LaunchSpace to offer 10K square feet of open workshop

  • Brianna Drohen —Contributed

  • Alec MacLeod — Contributed

  • Columnist Allen Young

For The Athol Daily News
Thursday, March 01, 2018

LaunchSpace, aided by a state grant of $250,000, is a new local enterprise premised on a vision of economic development and community spirit. Its goal is to help people in our region experience productive, fulfilling lives, and it’s exciting to see this vision moving rather quickly toward reality in the Orange Innovation Center.

You can get a glimpse of the letters “M” and “T” on the smokestack of this old factory building, now owned by a forward-looking real estate developer, Jack Dunphy of Greenfield. Minute Tapioca was relocated more than a half-century ago, and the building in recent decades housed other businesses, including the George Bent furniture company and the Bedroom Factory.

The visionaries behind LaunchSpace are Alec MacLeod of Orange and Brianna Drohen of Pelham. Alec has an educational background in forestry and hydrology. He is now moving in a somewhat different direction, while continuing his commitment to community and the environment.

Brianna has a background in business management and event planning and was chosen by Dunphy to be the on-site manager of the OIC since he acquired it in 2013 — and a lot has been going on there. Alec, the executive director, praised Co-founder/Director Brianna as “absolutely genius at making connections.”

At this time, there is a substantial build-out taking place on the third floor in the spacious concrete section of the old factory complex, where workmen are spending down some of that grant to prepare for bringing LaunchSpace to fruition. Dunphy has added equity to the project to provide a match to the grant making the project possible, Brianna said. Among the work taking place is installation of modern plumbing, an electrical upgrade and heating/ventilation.

The $250,000 grant from MassDevelopment, which falls under the state’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, is the largest they have given, according to Alec, who wrote the application with Brianna. He said that it is part of a program that promotes collaborate workspace initiatives.

MassDevelopment’s website explains that its “work in finance and development impacts many facets of the Massachusetts economy in cities and towns across the Commonwealth. Priorities include providing low-cost and creative financing options for a range of organizations, sustainably redeveloping surplus properties, transforming the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities and promoting the Massachusetts manufacturing and defense sectors.”

Jay Ash, secretary of Housing and Economic Development in the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker, has been to the OIC and has expressed his enthusiasm.

A big headline in this newspaper several weeks ago informed readers about LaunchSpace’s interest in the Pleasant Street School, and this might have confused some people. If the leasing of the Pleasant Street School by LaunchSpace happens in the future, it would be an addition to the productive activities that the nonprofit hopes to start within the walls of OIC this coming spring.

“So please tell me,” I said to Alec and Brianna, “what is LaunchSpace? Because even with all the publicity about the big grant, I still don’t know.” Their answer to my query was very clear, and I’ll share it here.

I remember when high school industrial arts was called “shop,” such as was woodworking shop and metalworking shop. So think of LaunchSpace as having an array of working shops like these in an open space of more than 10,000 square feet. In addition to the obvious metalwork and woodworking shops, there will be ones focusing on art in leather, fabrics, paper, pottery, glassblowing and more. Included will be information technology and robotics, bringing traditional crafts and trades in touch with the modern world.

Alec calls these shops “Tier 1” of LaunchSpace. Tier 2 involves links with educational institutions for workforce training and skills improvement. Connections have already been made with Mount Wachusett and Greenfield community colleges, and with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which will offer certificate programs in manufacturing topics. It’s plausible that some of the educational components will be offered at the Pleasant Street School site in the future.

Tier 3 of LaunchSpace envisions entrepreneurial support — helping people set up new businesses based on making products. Workers Credit Union and Athol Credit Union are offering financial education assistance, and LaunchSpace members can be referred to marketing, business planning and real estate experts.

LaunchSpace is a nonprofit organization with a membership structure — minimum monthly fee of $50 — and already has about 115 people intending to sign up. These members will utilize the shops in accordance with their interests, possibly including learning a brand-new skill, bringing experienced tradesmen up to date and actual production of products for sale.

Some private money has been donated to help with LaunchSpace’s first steps, and more is needed. There have been donations, as well as purchases of equipment. Alec noted that he got some “smoking deals,” including a woodworking lathe, a large band saw and a double drum sander — some once owned by the Athol Table Co.

Skepticism about elaborate projects like this is not easily discarded, but I like to push aside negativity in this era of conflict and despair, and join with others who hope to see dreams realized. I especially like the image that Alec and Brianna describe of “bringing together people of all ages from all walks of life, doing interesting things, engaging in conversation. Picture people meeting in the grocery store, someone 81 years old and a 15-year-old kid, just saying ‘hello’ because they have been connected at Launchspace.”

No doubt, this inter-generational contact is something that needs to be on the increase.

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