Building a Community of Makers

Peoria’s original makerspace brings out the inner maker in its members.
by Jay Babin, River City Labs
Joe Spanier demonstrates macro photography
Joe Spanier demonstrates macro photography of a 3D printer part during Build Night at River City Labs. Photo by Aaron Peterson

River City Labs is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit makerspace located in Peoria. Now more than five years old and fully moved into a new location, RCL continues to provide members with the tools and workspace necessary to complete maker projects of all kinds.

What is a Makerspace?
It is important to note that while every makerspace is different, they all share a few basic similarities. Probably the most important part of a makerspace is the community that makes up the membership. Everything a makerspace does is directly related to the interests, skills, willingness to learn and the sharing of knowledge among its community of users. Makerspaces can be built around engineering, computer programming, art, machining, woodworking… pretty much any topic of interest that a group of people can build a community around. The most successful ones tend to have a wide variety of these interests represented. 

A second feature common to all makerspaces is that its members come together in some sort of space. RCL’s industrial warehouse provides the space and infrastructure necessary to house the various machines and growing number of members that make the organization what it is. The truth is that a makerspace can be any place where people can meet. Oftentimes, a community of makers starts out in a coffeeshop, library, school or garage before maturing and moving into a more established space. 

Thirdly, there must be a business model that allows the makerspace to grow, sustain and pay the bills. RCL has monthly membership fees and is run by volunteer officers. Think of a gym membership business model, but with tools instead of weightlifting machines. Some makerspaces are funded through donations or grants; others are owned by a business. In some instances, the makerspace is part of a larger innovation hub or integrated into the programming of an educational institution. 

To answer the question: A makerspace is a place where a community of people share tools and knowledge and together build an environment where anybody with an idea can explore and develop the idea into some form of presentation. This is true whether the idea is a prototype for a machine, code for a microprocessor or a piece of art.

Makerspace
Fred Bliss demonstrating his 3D-printed robot at  MidWest MakerFest. Photo by Jim Trifone

Steam and Collaboration
RCL promotes STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Art-Math) education through collaborations with various “friends of the space.” Every summer, it hosts the MidWest Makerfest in coordination with Ignite Peoria—a daylong celebration of community creativity presented by ArtsPartners of Central Illinois. Ignite provides interactive experiences for visitors to see, feel, touch and participate in all things STEAM. One of its main events is the Central Illinois Robotics Club’s (CIRC) Battle Bot competitions. RCL has worked with CIRC for several years and provides the club a place to host their monthly meetings. 

Another “friend of the space” is the Peoria Riverfront Museum. RCL participates in Engineering Day, GeekFest and other STEAM-inspired events at the museum whenever possible.

In addition, Teacher Tuesdays, a monthly gathering of educators, and the Tech Teachers GP Facebook group were developed in collaboration with the University of Illinois Extension and several other partners. The goal is to create a community of teachers who are also makers. These monthly events, scheduled throughout the school year, provide educators with speakers, resources and activities that can be brought back into the classroom.

What Can You Dream?
RCL was founded with the goal of building a community workshop where people could build anything they dreamed of. The end result was an incredible community of sharing and craftsmanship. What can you do at River City Labs? A variety of tools are available for all members to use, including:

  • 3D printers;
  • Laser cutting and CNC tools;
  • Wood shop and metalworking tools;
  • Sound studio;
  • Electronics bench;
  • Computer station; and
  • Various other tools for arts, crafts and science of all kinds.

RCL offers a variety of membership levels and hosts classes, networking nights and even barbeques. You don’t have to have any previous experience—this is a place to learn and have fun. PM

River City Labs, 7916 N. Hale Avenue in Peoria, offers 24/7 access for members. The public is invited to visit on Thursdays after 6:30pm. For more information, call (815) 662-5376 or visit rivercitylabs.space—and check out their podcast at makersontap.com.

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