Downtown Tucson soon will be home to perhaps the only place on Earth where you can learn knitting as well as how to use your knitting needles for self-defense.
If that combination sounds intriguing, welcome to Maker House, a new collaborative workspace for artisans set to open in the Bates Mansion downtown in September.
It's part of a rapidly coalescing collection of collaborative workspaces that form the nascent Downtown Innovation District, which also includes the co-working space Gangplank Tucson and Xerocraft Hackerspace.
Like Xerocraft, Maker House is part of the worldwide "maker" movement - a technology-based extension of the do-it-yourself culture - but Maker House is focused on artists and artisans.
Maker House will provide a space for the creative and the curious to learn, collaborate or just hang out with other creative people.
"People have become consumers, not creators," said Tony Ford, co-founder and chief operating officer of the popular crafts e-commerce site Artfire.com.
"No one knows how to fix anything anymore, to make things anymore," said Ford, who founded Maker House with his wife, Vanessa Ford.. "These spaces create an opportunity for not only youth but for adults to learn those skills again."
Maker House plans to offer ongoing classes - the goal is up to 50 a week - on subjects ranging from painting and crocheting to 16th-century swordplay and "steampunk" (sci-fi meets the Wild West) sculpture, not to mention that knitting-needle defense class.
"The maker spaces tend to be tech and fab heavy, and we wanted to really bring in fine arts and traditional art and really that cross-disciplinary connection between art and tech, and this space was perfect for that," Ford said of the mansion at 283 N. Stone Ave.
Not to mention inspirational.
The sprawling Bates property began as a row house in the late 1800s and was later added onto by local accountant C.T.R. Bates, who bought the place in 1954. In 1975, the mansion became home of the Mountain Oyster Club, but the 65-year-old club of Tucson's movers-and-shakers moved in 2004.
The mansion, which is listed on the National Historic Registry, features a large room with one wall covered by a colorful mural by Mexican artist Salvador Corona, who lived in Tucson for many years. The mural of colonial Mexico scenes soon will be restored, under a $26,000 project spearheaded by Seth Schindler, managing partner of the property's owner, Prudent Preservation Partners.
Another room - built over an indoor pool and nicknamed "the bullring" by the Mountain Oyster Club - is defined by an oval arrangement of columns framing a ceiling of wood-beam ribwork.
Redubbed "the Salon," the space will form a conference room complete with a multimedia screen, Vanessa Ford said, adding that the mansion's gerrymandered layout provides lots of large open spaces as well as cubbyhole niches.
"Every room is multipurpose, and that's the point of a maker space - we just need lots of big rooms," said Vanessa, who is executive director of Maker House.
Outside, the courtyard has been redone with new flagstone and an underground root drip-irrigation system, and a historic wooden gate that had been walled over was reclaimed.
The courtyard will provide space for outdoor art and yoga classes and concerts, Vanessa said, noting that radio station KXCI 91.3-FM, a community partner, plans to hold monthly shows there.
A planned coffee bar will provide hangout space for members, who will pay $10 a month for access and get discounts on classes - which may include barista lessons. Maker House also is setting up 15 co-working desk spaces for rent.
While Maker House is a for-profit corporation, the idea isn't to make money, the Fords said.
Maker House is devoted to collaboration and education, and in so doing it could help many artists develop their crafts to create businesses - or earn money by teaching others.
All that will feed into Artfire, which already has moved into the Maker House space. Artfire.com was founded by CEO and majority owner John Jacobs, with Tony Ford. Artfire.com has grown into a major e-commerce site with its membership-based, commission-free sales model.
"It only has to break even - that's the beauty of it, said Ford. "Artfire is the real business, and this provides content back to Artfire."
Maker House will provide marketing and space for the classes and maybe make a little money from selling materials and from the café, he said.
Maker House already has been contacted by about 50 people interested in teaching classes - but needs about 100 more, Vanessa Ford said.
"The instructors will get paid, which is something that's really important to our philosophy," Tony Ford said. "We feel artists are often asked to give their expertise away, and we want artists to be paid for their expertise."
As part of the Downtown Innovation District - a new group spearheaded by the Fords - Maker House will fill a niche for artisans, while those needing other services or business mentoring will be referred to other partners.
"If you had said to me a year ago that there are going to be six or eight co-working, maker spaces, collaborative spaces all opening downtown at the same time, I would have said, 'Wow, that's going to be trouble for Tucson,' " Tony Ford said.
"But they're so different. If someone comes down and really wants to get into fab and welding, we can send them to Xerocraft. If they want to start a business, we can route them to Gangplank and Startup Tucson. If somebody wants co-working space, we're partners with three other spaces, if ours doesn't fit."
Drawn by the increased gravitational pull of a downtown energized by redevelopment, other innovation partners are arriving soon.
Xerocraft, currently in South Tucson, will soon move downtown to the old Steinfeld warehouse, just west of Maker House.
The Toole Avenue Hive, 1 E. Toole Ave., is a co-work space under development by Tucson businessman and downtown booster Fletcher McCusker.
The 10,000-square foot space, which will be split with McCusker's new company, Sinfonia HealthCare Corp., will open in the next week or so with 27 workspaces, said Sandy Mellor, community-relations director for Sinfonia.
The Toole Avenue Hive is working with the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management to provide workspace for students and graduates who start businesses and already has three Eller grads lined up, Mellor said.
Such spaces can potentially help Tucson lessen the so-called "brain drain" of UA grads who leave for greener pastures, she said.
"That's the purpose - it's to keep that from happening so much," Mellor said. "It's always going to happen a little bit, but there's so many people who don't have a place, they move away. We hope they stay here and grow their business."
Tucson's biggest planned co-working space - Connect, in the Rialto Block on East Congress Street - is under construction and expected to open by the end of the year, Rialto developer Scott Stiteler said.
The for-profit Connect will occupy 14,000 square feet and offer 200 desks, Stiteler said. Leasing will start Aug. 1.
"We're convinced the timing is really right for downtown Tucson for something of this scale and size," he said, adding that he's eager to network with the other downtown innovation partners.
Other downtown organizations and businesses supporting the innovation district include
• Pima County Public Library
• Desert Owl Games
• Elegant Thought
• KXCI 91.3 FM Community Radio
• Address: 283 N. Stone Ave.
• Website: MakerHouse.org
• Facebook: facebook.com/makerhouse.org
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4181.