Out of STEAM in downtown Burlington

STEAM closes

STEAM Junction on May 31, 2020.

When I saw the note via Facebook on June 1 I was not surprised. Deeply saddened, but not surprised.

To our members, supporters, friends, family, and the community here in Alamance County: It is with a sad heart that I must report to you that as of 5pm Sunday May 31st we have ceased our maker space operation at 111 East Front Street in Downtown Burlington and have moved our equipment, materials, and facilities completely into storage for the foreseeable future.

And with that STEAM Junction, a venture that began with great promise and optimism in 2016, closed its doors. It will be closed for a while, perhaps forever. At this point its future is cloudy. And STEAM Junction’s departure leaves Burlington, a designated “Maker City” without a maker space. Part of the long-range master plan for downtown is creating an environment for innovation, creativity, design and art — all elements that are part of “making.” All are elements of STEAM.

Even though the non-profit Alamance Makers Guild is still functioning and intact, the loss of STEAM Junction as a private business is a blow to downtown.

I have written about STEAM Junction, the Maker Space and its co-founder Ben Harris a few times, dating to my days with the Burlington Times-News. Most recently in May of 2019 when I bumped into him at the Maker Takeover at Elon. Harris at the time said the business was struggling. He was doing everything possible with his co-founders and volunteers to keep the doors open — including working long hours without a salary since STEAM Junction opened.

Harris managed to pay the bills for a while based on workshops for things like glass blowing, Christmas ornament making or spiral painting. But the company always lacked the number of members paying monthly fees needed to really turn the corner. Memberships never reached 50, the figure Harris called “critical mass” to keep the enterprise afloat. When the COVID-19 pandemic required social distancing, Harris ended the workshops, the only good source of revenue left.

That basically ended STEAM Junction. Harris and 15 volunteers working off and on at different times moved more than two tons of equipment and other items out before a May 31 deadline when another month of rent would be due to Core Properties, one of downtown’s primary developers.

I caught up with Harris on Thursday, June 5. He is still trying to process all that has occurred over the past few months, reorganize his life and find a job.

“I’m kind of in a daze. I took a day or two off. We moved two and a half tons over the last few days,” he said. A lot of it went to the county landfill. Any computers that could be salvaged were donated to Goodwill. The 3D printers and other equipment is taking up space in Harris’s house, in storage pods and the home of STEAM Junction co-founder Ilsa Spaan.

“It’s been a roller coaster, up and down with everything. Now it’s the next phase of   dealing with everything, I guess. I kept thinking, what are we going to do? How are we going to do it?” Harris said and added that he had to sort through his complicated reaction to it all. “It’s not really depression and it’s not really grief. I finally hit on defeated. I feel defeated. Everything’s gone and what now because I’m still here.”

Harris said until the COVID-19 pandemic became an inevitable reality, STEAM Junction was functioning at a solid level. In the weeks leading up to the pandemic’s grip on America, interest in the maker space appeared to be approaching that “critical mass.” Ten people came in the Front Street location to buy memberships. Some were new to the area. And some had watched the maker space for a couple of years before taking the leap. A new arrival to Burlington from Atlanta had experience in teaching engineering and was prepared to start offering a class at STEAM Junction.

“Things were really positive leading up to the COVID. We knew it was coming. We could see it happening. But the enormity of it hadn’t hit us yet,” Harris said. “Two thirds of our revenue was from workshops. When we couldn’t hold workshops it ended us. Even if people wanted to come out I wouldn’t do it because it’s not safe.”

Rent and other expenses became insurmountable problems. The small business loan program offered by the federal government only obtained a minimal amount because the business didn’t have enough income or assets to qualify for a larger loan. COVID-19 and a shortfall of members made the enterprise unsustainable.

“We needed 50 members to break even. We hovered around 25 to 30 members. If we had 50 members signed up and paying dues we wouldn’t have had to close our doors. and we wouldn’t have worried about the rent,” Harris said. “We would have been fine. As it was, we didn’t have the critical mass we needed.”

This wasn’t how the story was supposed to go. That’s how it is for any small business. But STEAM Junction was opened with a lot of momentum.

The Alamance Makers Guild first began meeting in 2011 at the Sylvan Learning Center. From there the group grew and eventually sponsored a popular Maker Faire held at Holly Hill Mall. It became an annual event that drew vendors and makers from across the state and southeast.

“We spent years trying to show the value of STEM education and how it relates to jobs,” Harris said. He believes the recession of 2008 helped spread the Maker message.

The Maker Movement grew nationally until it got the attention of President Obama who held a Maker event at the White House, attended by Harris. He even met the Science Guy Bill Nye. The White House Maker Faire in 2014 showed off work from around the nation, including from Alamance County. That day Obama said makers were keeping ingenuity and innovation alive, according to a story in the Burlington Times-News. He talked about the economic opportunities created by do it yourselfers.

“Today’s DIY is tomorrow’s ‘Made in America.’ Your projects are an example of a revolution that’s taking place in American manufacturing: A revolution that can help us create new jobs and industries for decades to come,” Obama said that day.

Those were heady times when anything seemed possible for the Maker Movement.

“The White House event crystallized my thinking that this isn’t a trend. This isn’t a fad. The president is saying this is how we bring jobs back,” Harris recalled. “”The president is saying we need inventors. we need creative people. The president is speaking your lingo, the language of your tribe and that’s a big motivator.”

Two years later STEAM Junction was formed as a corporation and started looking at property in downtown Burlington. Company Shops Market was succeeding, Burlington Beer Works was in the planning stage. Front Street was undergoing a makeover. The time and place seemed right, Harris said.

“We looked at several properties. We wanted to be accessible. We wanted to be in a safe place for parents to drop their kids off,” Harris said. “We wanted to be part of the Renaissance downtown.”

STEAM Junction formed the corporation on Jan. 1 2016 and started moving into the Front Street site in February. As Harris was obtaining equipment to move in, the Maker Movement was featured on UNC TV, focusing on Alamance County as a state leader. After a soft opening in June, the grand opening was a Maker Takeover event on Oct. 15, 2016.

The grand opening was possibly a harbinger of what would come. Even though there was strong social media marketing, stories by the Times-News and area TV stations, the turnout was disappointing, Harris said.

“I think to people in the community we looked a lot more successful than a grassroots thing that’s just beginning to grow,” Harris said. “We didn’t look vulnerable. People thought ‘they’re going to be fine.”

And a large number of people didn’t grasp what makers or making are all about. They seemed unsure what a maker space might be or if it’s something they would be interested in. A friend of mine in engineering at Elon told me recently that people in America have forgotten what “making” is. So many things are produced for them that doing it yourself doesn’t come to mind.

STEAM Junction had a strong base of support, a core group of dedicated individuals and organizations. “A lot of people helped us and without that help we wouldn’t have made it this far,” Harris said.

Bill Harrison, the now retired superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington School System, was one of them. Alamance Community College, Blessed Sacrament School and Elon University were also champions for STEAM Junction. STEAM Junction helped Elon launch its own maker program on campus. “Then we saw people retire, leave jobs and move out of the county,” Harris said.

Harris isn’t sure what might be next. He sees COVID-19 being a problem for six months to a year at the very least so starting a new enterprise in another location won’t happen anytime soon. The county had a high poverty rate before the pandemic. Without steady employment nothing is certain.

Harris has mentioned Graham as a possible landing spot if he decides to restart STEAM Junction. But he’s in no hurry to do so. He believes this area needs a maker space. When operating, it gave Burlington a different and higher profile in the state and nationally. It can be an attraction for high-tech businesses and it’s a creative outlet for people of almost any age. It was a great spot to take children and to develop their imaginations and skills.

“I try to remain positive. I would like to think that people see the value in what we were doing,” Harris said. “I would like to restart but it would take a lot to convince me unless I know there’s a runway for success.”

 

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