Even amid 2020, creativity grew in Lowell
Maker’s group moves into expanded, socially-distanced space
January 2, 2021 : The Lowell Sun, by Robert Mills
LOWELL — Sam Burdette, president of Lowell Makes, tried to focus much of her anxiety and concern during 2020 into the organization she leads — a group of over 100 local makers who team up and share space and tools to create.
“To be able to make something makes you feel like you can have some control over your life at this time when things are completely uncertain,” Burdett said just before the New Year. “For me, this year, Lowell Makes has been that focus.”
And with help from the community, the state, dozens of members, and even a former landlord, Lowell Makes managed to buy and move into a new 26,000-square-foot space in the mill building shared by the Western Avenue Studios and Lofts and Navigation Brewing.
Even amid a devastating pandemic, creativity continued to grow at 150 Western Avenue, #3, Lowell.
In May, when the group closed on their new space but were yet to move in, Burdett said the combination of makers and artists would make “a hub of creative entrepreneurship” on Western Avenue.
“It’s been rough. There have been hard times and the pandemic has not helped us, it’s made things awkward and difficult, but I’m 100% impressed by how the community came together to help Lowell Makes and that we were able to build something amazing on a year that’s this rough has been unbelievable,” Burdett said.
The group was running a major fundraiser to raise over $100,000 toward the purchase of the property early in 2020 when the pandemic arrived.
By the end of March, the downtown maker’s space was quickly converted into a 24-hour, 7 day a week manufacturing hub of 3D printers making desperately needed N95 masks, as Lowell Makes members realized their skills could be of use during the crisis.
Social distancing allowed very few people into the old space — members had to sign up in advance and a system was set up at the front door to keep track of how many people were inside. But in May, the group finally closed on the space on Western Avenue, and the move began.
The months since have been spent moving, and working with their former landlord, general contractor Nick Sarris, of Lowell, to build out their new space.
“He’s been a godsend because we’re coming into this as volunteers — not really knowing what has to happen to do a commercial-sized buildout, but at the same time we’re doers and makers,” Burdett said. “When we were talking to him about how to save costs as a 100% volunteer non-profit with a small budget, he was completely on board with having us do some of the work.”
She said Sarris let the group save money by doing many jobs a contractor would typically do, even as he worked for them to manage the build-out.
The result — phase one of the move in is now complete — includes fully enclosed metal and woodworking shops, rooms for spray-painting, a plastics shop, far more windows and a large, open-air area where many of the shops and stations are. Brew’d Awakening’s has even rented space from the group to roast coffee beans, Burdett said.
Marketing Director Amy Watson said the move has also helped raise the group’s profile, which was a big help as the pandemic made many members withdraw. The group’s membership dipped from about 150 to below 100 during the pandemic, but is back up to about 125, Watson and Burdett said.
Burdett said the pandemic has left many people searching for a form of stress relief or a new hobby, which has led a new group of makers to Lowell Makes.
“It’s been great to see people want to come and join us even while we were under construction,” Watson said. “People have signed up for membership and started volunteering just a few hours later.”
While the group hoped and planned for expansion long before the pandemic struck, moving into roughly twice as much space as they had before allowed Lowell Makes to setup their new space with far more attention to social distancing.
“It helped to get more space a time when we have to spread out more in our space,” Burdett said. “Most shops are set up so you can be in the shop and work and still be six feet away from everyone else.”
The group is also using a commercial version of a device that members created their own version of at the old space.
“The door system is set to lock if we go over 25 people in the space,” Burdett said. “If at some point we get to that point then access will be restricted, but we haven’t hit that yet because everyone has been really good about coming in when they need to, doing what they need to do and then heading out.”
Further brightening spirits at the end of 2020, is that the group, which already got a $76,000 cultural facilities grant via MassDevelopment that helped them close on the property, also got a new grant from MassDevelopment’s Collaborative Workspace Program, which is aimed at ensuring collaborative workspaces can continue to operate or safely reopen.
That $90,000 grant will enable Lowell Makes to dive into phase 2 of their build-out of the new space, which will include rebuilding the space’s front entrance and making it more accessible, with a ramp and more visibility, additional electrical work, equipment for a significantly expanded metal shop, and a ductless fume hood for the spray painting room, Watson said.
For more information on Lowell Makes, visit: LowellMakes.com.