Fab Lab hopes to buy permanent space

[Source: “Fab Lab hopes to buy permanent space,” Press Citizen, 6:42 p.m. CST January 22, 2015, by Josh O’Leary]

Zoning hurdles have thwarted the idea of establishing the state’s first Fab Lab inside an Iowa City shopping center, but organizers are still keeping hope alive for a high-tech workshop.

The STEAM Room has been hosting clubs and organizing science events inside the Iowa City Marketplace, formerly Sycamore Mall, since last summer, with the initial goal of one day opening up a permanent operation at the mall.

However, obtaining the necessary heavy commercial zoning from the city at that location would have been far from a sure thing, said STEAM Room director Kirk Cheyney, so the organization is searching for a new home and has kicked off a fundraising campaign.

“It’s easier to move to the right zone than change the zoning law,” Cheyney said. “It would have been a months-long process, and at the end, if they said ‘no,’ it would have been months without having anything to show for it.”

Cheyney first pitched a Fab Lab for Iowa City in 2013 — a digital fabrication laboratory packed with an array of tools and electronics such as CNC machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, a computer lab, woodworking equipment and welding gear, to name just a few of the components.

The idea, which began as an MIT outreach initiative and has since grown into a national network of Fab Labs, is to provide widespread access to the tools of invention. The nonprofit Iowa City lab would rent work spaces and sell monthly memberships, like a gym, giving the public the ability to use equipment they normally wouldn’t have access to.

Organizers set up shop last year in two empty storefronts in the shopping center — which is undergoing major renovations — where they hosted youth summer camps and have continued to hold regular activities in the months since. Robotics clubs from West High and City High, for instance, are frequent users of the lab.

The Fab Lab can only use the mall space through May, however, said Cheyney, and organizers have been scouting properties in south Iowa City. The city had told the lab it would require a zoning change to operate permanently at the mall.

Cheyney said the Fab Lab has four properties on its short list, ranging from 12,000 to 40,000 square feet, with the hopes of purchasing a facility by this spring. To do so, organizers have set a goal of raising $750,000 in the coming months.

Wendy Ford, Iowa City’s economic development coordinator, said the city will support the Fab Lab in its search for a permanent location.

“We’re excited to see them pursue their own building in an appropriately zoned area, and look forward to supporting those endeavors,” Ford said.

The lab already owns an array of equipment, much of which has been donated. Now it just needs a place to house it all, said Cheyney.

“It’s amazing the amount of support we’ve already received and keep receiving,” Cheyney said. “We’ve built our current facility with nothing but volunteers. The support of community has been great; we’re just hoping to kick it up a notch.”

Learn more about the STEAM Room Fab Lab and its capital campaign at www.thesteamroom.org.

Reach Josh O’Leary at joleary@press-citizen.com, 319-887-5415 or on Twitter at @JD_OLeary.

20150212th-kirk-cheyney-steam-room-fab-lab
Kirk Cheyney watches a 3D printer at work on Wednesday inside the STEAM Room Fab Lab’s temporary location at the Iowa City Marketplace. Cheyney, the Fab Lab’s founder, hopes to acquire a new facility for the nonprofit lab. (Photo: Josh O’Leary / Iowa City Press-Citizen)

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