Drivers speeding by on 31st Street near Cherry in Midtown, Kansas City, probably rarely noticed the building — its windows boarded up like so many others. That is, until last week.
Behind those boards — and now, a gleaming new glass façade — Maker Village KC is taking shape. Co-owners and founders Sam Green and Nick Ward-Bopp are inside most nights and weekends demolishing, renovating and building.
Maker Village KC will be Kansas City’s newest “maker space,” part of a growing phenomenon that creates work areas – often including tools and instruction – for those who want to do innovative things through the very old-fashioned activity of making things with their hands. Ward-Bopp says the movement hearkens back to his grandparents’ generation.
“They had toasters that you could take apart and kind of figure out what's going on,” Ward-Bopp says. “It wasn't a glue-and-clip and then if you open it up it's just completely destroyed.”
The two say on their website that their initiative “will be geared to inspire and enable entrepreneurs, craftsmen/women and artists.” Green says their initial business plan is for Maker Village KC to function as a “sandbox.”
“We want to be much more of a catalyst than trying to start our own entity,” Green says.
The warehouse is actually two spaces side-by-side. Ward-Bopp says they believe the building was built around 1897 and served as an electrical utility, possibly converting power for the city streetcar service, which had a maintenance facility next door.
The western half of the space, they say, is almost finished, having removed plaster from the historic brick walls and ceiling beams, installed a bathroom, and done extensive cleaning. Ward-Bopp says the 1,500 square feet of this half will house rental space for studios, work areas, light small-batch manufacturing and retail operations near the front along 31st Street.
The eastern half includes 1,200 square feet of woodshop and metalshop, a space already lined with tools, workbenches and power supply systems. There’s an upstairs area that includes electrical engineering equipment, a conference space and a kitchen. This space will be available for rental, workshops and, in time, possibly memberships for the general public.
In the basement, Ward-Bopp and Green share a windowless but comfortable two-bedroom apartment —giving them easy access to their ongoing construction project. The overall approach distinguishes their effort from many other profit-focused entrepreneurial projects.
“We get thrown in the lifestyle business category all the time, and I love it,” Ward-Bopp says, “because yeah, we don't have an exit strategy, we're not trying to make millions, we're not trying to scale and get rich.”
Green interjects, “breaking even would be nice.”
A partnership long in the making
Green, who says he is the systems engineer of the project, and Ward-Bopp, who identifies as the one responsible for communications and outreach, met when the lived across the street from each other growing up in Indiana. They tend to finish each other’s sentences, and they laugh a lot.
“It's a long relationship,” Green says. “It's interesting every time we go to talk to an accountant or a lawyer. There's always the awkward pause trying to figure out ... what do you mean by 'partner?'”
Nick adds, “we just like to keep it ambiguous.” Sam doesn’t miss a beat: “Along with the business plan.”
Actually, both men have girlfriends, but their friendship has clearly been informing their schemes for a long time. Ward-Bopp recalled the time they ran 1,000 feet of cable out their bedroom windows and across the street to connect their computers for video games. Green remembers that they looked up the height of a semi truck – 13 feet, six inches.
“So we ran it like 14 feet,” Green says. “We're on a small little street and all of a sudden like a month later we hear a horn and a semi-truck barreling down the street, we run upstairs and get up on the roof and watch it happen, and it cleared it, so it was good.”
“Then,” Green adds, “it got struck by lightning because we didn't ground it, so our modems got fried, but you know, live and learn.”
Ward-Bopp and Green hope Maker Village KC sees its first paying customers in the rental space in a few months, although the date has shifted a few times. They aren’t in a rush, and they have no plans to quit their day jobs any time soon. Green’s an engineer at Burns & McDonnell; Ward-Bopp facilitates the Johnson County Library maker space.
In the meantime, they continue to spend nights and weekends making improvements large and small. On a recent Saturday, they put up racks and pegboards to hold tools and brooms.
“This is about building community,” Ward-Bopp continues. “This is about making Kansas City a better place. This is about enriching our lives and finding something that we care about. We got lucky in a lot of ways.”
This story is part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an email, tweet us, or find us on Facebook.