HIBBING — Ask Andrew Hanegmon what Iron Range Makerspace (IRM) is, and he’ll tell you it’s a hub for creativity — a place where bright, forward-thinking people come together to reshape the world.
“That’s what we do here,” said IRM’s optimizer. “We dream.”
“We chose the title because it’s different, and more accurate to what I do,” Hanegmon explained. “What it really means is that I make the best out different situations. I learn new ways of doing things to enhance the business and organize it. CEO and business owner is kind of boring, so we went with optimizer.”
IRM opened its doors June 17, 2017, with the goal of providing entrepreneurs a dedicated space to connect local talent and spark tangible business growth.
Housed in the former HIbbing VFW, IRM’s sprawling facility just off Highway 169 houses a metalworking bay, automotive lift, tool cave, wood shop, textile area, recording studio, DIY library, commercial kitchen, weight-lifting gym and more.
Hanegmon confirmed that when they purchased the building in December 2016, they spent weeks gutting it and addressing water damage and fire hazards before tackling the extensive remodel. He estimates it took 3,000 volunteer hours to whip the place into shape.
“We’re the only shop in the United States with chandeliers,” Hanegmon pointed to the lights and chuckled. “We’re very proud of that.”
Near the front entry is a modest storefront with merchandise for sale that IRM members made inside the facility. From canned green beans to homemade guitars, it’s an interesting variety and small proof of a much larger vision.
When one first steps into IRM, they are often greeted by Hanegmon — or the other Hanegmon. Char Hanegmon is known as the “energizer,” and is always happy to help.
Andrew Hanegmon’s focus is clear — to jumpstart a cultural shift within the Iron Range.
“Anytime you have a skill, you have to work it,” said the 28-year-old while pointing to an array of business cards from members who operate within the building. Today, eight businesses are located there.
“If we don’t give our people a chance to work the skill of entrepreneurialism, we’re simply ‘thinking’ in an innovative way, which makes innovation hard,” he said. “You have to accelerate it. That’s what we’re here for.”
By building up local talent, Hanegmon hopes community members will embrace innovation and use the IRM facility to create prototypes and explore ways to start new businesses that attract more profit to the region and raise sustainability over time.
That includes a sustainability for the mining industry, and for years beyond it.
“The Iron Range is known for being able to make anything and for having a massive work ethic,” Hanegmon stressed. “I think it’s time we own that and say that’s who we are, and we’re going to output that to the rest of the world.”
IRM currently has 146 members. A large percentage of that is thanks to their partnerships with educational institutions. The Iron Range Engineering program, for example, provides IRM memberships for all of its students and faculty.
In addition to catering to the general do-it-yourselfer, Hanegmon is pushing for more employers to do the same by thinking of IRM membership as a supplemental wellness program for employees.
He believes employees who are productive after work, will be “less depressed” when it's time to return to work, and therefore, more engaged. It also gives people something enjoyable and different to do on weekends that’s both innovative and social.
Hanegmon sees even more benefits to employers, beyond increasing workforce morale.
“We can enhance businesses in the area,” he said. “Especially those that don’t have access to the type of equipment we have.”
By taking advantage of the tools already available at IRM, local businesses can avoid large investment costs and purchase memberships so employees can work at Makerspace during the day, as needed. Hanegmon also thinks the act of leaving the office and working into a new environment can help foster out-of-the-box thinking.
IRM wants to expand membership to 700-plus as soon as possible. They believe the more community members are actively creating, the better the chances are that it’ll result in a positive impact for the Range — and possibly the globe.
In the effort to become an “idea foundry,” they also have ambitious plans to double in size in the coming years. By appealing to communities from surrounding towns, they’re confident people will recognize the benefit of driving 30 miles in exchange for access to a half million dollars worth of equipment and assets.
That’s why they chose Hibbing. It offered a higher population base than centering in Virginia or other nearby towns. Plus the dream was always to serve the Iron Range.
As far as competitors go, it depends on how you look at it. Hanegmon said they could easily list every fitness center, college, art guild, fabricator, etc. as competitors. But, IRM would rather partner with them than compete.
“Makerspace is all about collaboration and enhancing other area businesses,” he explained.
They understand that by building ties with companies, they can focus on their strengths and niches and how they can assist each other instead of wasting energy trying to bump each other out.
So he doesn’t project IRM affecting small business. If anything, he wants to enhance it.
That includes developing mentorships.
At IRM, the design right down to the shop composition encourages curiosity and friendship. The layout requires members to walk past other projects in progress, which prompts a lot of conversation.
Everyday people share pointers about the skills they’ve honed over the years. Hanegmon described how a 13-year-old was training a retiree on how to use the laser, and in return, that retiree taught the younger member drawing tricks.
It’s a give-and-take that happens when people show up and create together, which is why the next facility upgrade will include co-working spaces, noted Hangemon.
The concept of a makerspace isn’t new, though it’s slow to catch on outside large cities, like Minneapolis. A co-working space is a place where office employees can hole up for the day and enjoy use of private offices, conference rooms and fast internet.
IRM wants to design multiple co-working areas for local businesses as soon as funds allow.
For all the benefits IRM is trying to bring to the community, it isn’t without its challenges. The main one being increasing revenue.
Hanegmon admits they projected better profits coming in from their classes and workshops. They didn’t take into account the fact those groups, whether large or small, temporarily block other members from using that area while class is in session, so they’d like to see the number of attendees increase to justify cost and use of the space.
Even so, they’re moving forward and actively looking for more instructors who have a trade they’d like to teach. Teachers don’t have to be members, nor do the attendees.
IRM hopes that by welcoming in the community, that exposure will eventually lead to a spike in membership.
Breaker Space is one class they’re particularly proud of. It’s an educational program designed for children to learn together while taking apart two donated Polaris engines and reassembling them. Children are able to enjoy hands-on learning in a safe environment that encourages questions and technical exploration.
Hanegmon said the kids really seem to like it. With any luck, there will be similar classes added to the growing list.
Overall, Hanegmon has been pleasantly surprised by how well the IRM vision has come together. What started as the dream of five people in a design team at Iron Range Engineering has taken on a life of its own.
“I’ve been continually amazed at the creativity of people in this area,” he reflected.
Still, he knows he couldn’t have done any of it without partnerships with other organizations. It took hundreds of people to make the dream possible, and Hanegmon now wants to pay it forward by providing the best possible space for Rangers to create and innovate their own dreams.
He emphasized that what makes membership so special is the incredible community that has budded within the walls of Makerspace. It’s an innovative sector where people have the opportunity to share knowledge and support one another. They’re lifelong learners who get to see their ideas come to life at rapid speed alongside fellow community members who are always willing to lend a hand.
At the end of the day, that’s their mission: to centralize resources into one collaborative environment designed for innovation — right here in the heart of the Iron Range.
To become a member, there’s a one time $100 orientation fee, and after that, it’s $40 a month with a three-month contract. If interested, contact Hangemon at 218-966-1192, or visit their Facebook page or website ironrangemakerspace.com.