By Lee Howard The Day, New London, Conn.
Hannah Gant took one look around this old whaling city and found it full of potential, a place ripe for an experiment in working.
"I feel called to be here," she said. "I don't think it's an accident I landed in New London."
Now, two years in, this West Coast transplant and Trinity College graduate is ready to see if the dream of a "creative and collaborative community" she has been seeding as a social entrepreneur will take off and fly on its own.
The cooperatively organized Spark Makerspace, in the former El 'n' Gee Club on Golden Street, will hold a soft opening next month in hopes that a diverse group led by members can ignite an entrepreneurial buzz around the city by sharing space, tools and materials.
The organization rents the bottom floor at 86 Golden St., where it is building out a commercial kitchen, separate wood shop and other work stations, with hopes of moving into the top floor to create quieter artist spaces and digital media areas once the idea takes off. It is now soliciting donations of machines, materials and money that are tax deductible through its affiliation with the nonprofit New London Main Street.
"We will be starting businesses," Gant said during a presentation at the Makerspace this month. "I think New London is ascendant. This place is going to explode."
Over the past two years, Gant has picked up a large group of adherents, among them Hygienic artist-in-residence Casey Moran, who is at the Makerspace from noon to 5 p.m. six days a week getting things done.
Other key figures are John Curran, a former Navy man who has recently returned to school after providing some of the early enthusiasm and equipment to get the Makerspace up and running, and George Ryan, Gant's partner in a business development cooperative called As the Crow Flies. Moran, Curran and Ryan are all on the Makerspace board of directors with Gant.
Ryan is dealing with issues such as insurance and crowdfunding, which will be one of the Makerspace's next initiatives during a push starting Jan. 30 to raise $20,000 to match a grant from the state. The project, found at www.spark.coop, also is soliciting members who will pay a monthly fee ranging from $30 for those willing to put in a minimum number of work hours to $55 for those who simply want to use the space and equipment.
"It's much like a gym membership," Gant said, with the space being available during set hours.
She foresees a time when businesses incubated at the Makerspace might also voluntarily contribute a percentage of their profits to help maintain and expand the operation.
Gant said a co-working space at 13 Golden St. also will be included in the membership price for those needing conference and presentation facilities. She expects 20 to 30 members within the first week of opening, with more than 100 perhaps by the end of next year.
"We're really trying to develop a culture around community engagement," Gant said. "I want to help groups start businesses that are (suited) ... uniquely for the place they are a part of."
Gant is also mindful that good economic tidings could bring gentrification, potentially forcing out people some of the very people she is hoping to empower.
She sees Spark as an antidote to such a possibility since the Makerspace seeks to build up individual capability by providing training in various creative pursuits, from printmaking to metalwork to sewing. The idea is to create an environment in which everyone is learning and bouncing ideas off one another, essentially creating and expanding their own niche based on what they do best.
Gant's father and sister, who attended the recent presentation in which she outlined her personal journey, said they believe Gant is going to make things happen in New London.
"She does good things," said her father, Doug Gant, a physician.
"She has a way of catalyzing things that's really inspiring," added twin sister Marisa. "She's at a place where things are going to take off."
Gant usually deflects attention from her own contributions, preferring to focus on the good work of others. But during her presentation she shared her story.
"I feel a strong sense of responsibility to utilize and cultivate the talents and gifts I have to make things happen," Gant said.
Gant said her ideas crystalized while she attended Pinchot University in Seattle, where she received her master's degree in business administration. Her ideas have been enhanced by her relationship with a small group of like-minded people from around the country who have dubbed themselves the Imaginal Fellows in the hopes of becoming change agents of a new, more humane economy that seeks to alter people's relationship with money.
"How can we get in the right relationship with money?" she asked. "A lot of harm happens as a result of money. It denatures relationships. They become transactional."
Direct trade and barter, she said, could reduce the need for cash.
"I think of money as a social technology. It's a system we inherited. Money is like a story we tell ourselves that really shapes our behavior," she said.
Thanks to her parents, Gant had a nest egg of about $200,000 when she graduated from college, an amount that has been cut in half over the years, she said, as she has worked to make her dreams of a different kind of economy a reality.
In preparation for being what she terms a "midwife" to a variety of organizations seeking fundamental economic changes, Gant has been a farmer, cheesemaker and owner of a candy-bar business. She also has managed several farmers markets in the Hartford area.
She came to New London originally to work on a loan fund associated with the St. Francis House but soon found her interest turning toward economic development. A meeting she arranged for local people to pitch business ideas led to the idea of creating a Makerspace in downtown, and at about the same time, she also helped launch another cooperative venture called ReInspire -- now merged with the Makerspace project -- that encourages craftspeople to work together on saleable items.
"This place feels perfect to me to -- to the work I feel called to do," Gant said of New London. "This place is full of potential."
Annah Perch, executive director of New London Main Street, said the marriage between Gant and the city is perfect because New London residents tend to be open-minded and flexible. Perch is hopeful that the downtown Makerspace will bring in outside creative types while also leading more people in the region to build out their own small businesses, eventually filling empty storefronts in the city.
"It's so interesting how many people have already come out of the woodwork -- people who have businesses in their living room or garage," Perch said.
Gant, she said, took her time getting to know the city and has made all the right connections to get things done. She also has a philosophy behind her ideas, Perch said, and has thoroughly studied how to implement new economic theories.
"She definitely has a clear, understated energy," Perch said. "She's very thoughtful. She makes careful decisions. ... We think very highly of Hannah."