FARMINGTON – The laser rapidly cuts the outline of a watchband into the leather, quickly followed by a series of circles. In the video, the machine makes quick work out of a series of bands, like a well-coordinated dance.
For Charles Lynch, owner of Bilasáana, it’s a time-saver. Bilasáana, located in downtown Farmington, specializes in handcrafted Native American Apple accessories, such as watchbands crafted from silver and leather. While Lynch contracts the silverwork to local Diné artists, he cuts the leather himself by hand, a process that can take up to an hour for one band. But now, using the laser cutter at San Juan College’s Big Idea Makerspace, he is able to do a whole leather sheet of bands in under an hour.
This is the purpose of the makerspace – to help entrepreneurs – test and develop products using tools they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, said Judy Castleberry, director of San Juan College’s Enterprise Center.
The makerspace, opened in February 2019 and housed inside the college’s Enterprise Center, is home to a graphic design studio, 3D printers, metal and woodworking equipment, fiber-arts equipment and a technology station. Anyone in the community can have access to the equipment through a membership, Castleberry said.
Alongside the makerspace, the Enterprise Center is a certified business incubator, providing resources, office space, business coaching, workshops, financing and shared equipment to help people in starting and growing their businesses, she said.
Yet the goals of the makerspace – while emphasizing playful creation and entrepreneurship – go beyond the college and into the larger Farmington area.
“One of the things I’d like to do in the next five years is for our community to be the hub of innovation,” said Lorenzo Reyes, dean of the Workforce and Economic Development Center at the college.
The long-term goals of the college’s makerspace mirror many of city and county officials’ hoping to expand and diversify Farmington’s economy beyond oil and natural gas. Reyes said for many years the community was focused on one or two industries, “but we have a lot of assets in this community that could really transform the area.”
But to become a central hub for enterprise, Reyes said, any long-term plan has to pull together resources throughout the Four Corners, including Durango. He added the key is to “leverage the resources that exist in the region and then to attract companies from out of town.”
Reyes would like to see the community, through the makerspace, build up members with innovative and creative ideas to eventually expand into production or attract companies to come into the region.
Reyes cited a study which found about 90% of the products sold in Farmington come from out of town.
“We are a retail hub, and it’s one of the economic assets in the community,” he said. “But when you have 90% of the products sold here being imported, why can’t we create jobs and create opportunities and create people who will develop the products and services, create them here and sell them here?”
It won’t be easy. One of the challenges the makerspace has faced in its first year, Reyes said, is spreading the word and getting local entrepreneurs and craft-makers interested in using the facility.
Yet there have been recent signs of progress. In November, the college’s Enterprise Center received a $50,000 grant to help startups focused on outdoor recreation from the state’s Economic Development Department. The college’s grant will help fund entrepreneurs using the makerspace for outdoor product manufacturing, Reyes said.
While funding to create the makerspace was provided by Merrion Oil and Gas, Raytheon and an Intel grant, Reyes would like to see the space become self-sustaining through its membership programs. Although students at the college get a free membership, rates cost from $60 per month for individuals to $140 per month for businesses.
Lynch, who started creating the products behind Bilasáana about three years ago, said while he can still make the leather bands from hand, using the laser cutter has made a huge difference in his production time. He was able to open a storefront property downtown earlier this year. While he pays a membership fee to access the makerspace, he added, “It’s worth every penny.”