CHESTERTOWN — For generations, the buildings at 800 High St. provided jobs, first as a Vita Foods pickle processing facility and later as the Dixon Valve and Coupling Co. headquarters and manufacturing plant.

In December of 2019, KRM Development Corp., the real estate division of The Dixon Group, “gifted” the 11-acre property to Washington College as the company prepared to move to its new, purpose-built campus just north of Chestertown. 

Now the college is launching a process to engage members of the greater community in envisioning a collaborative workspace in one existing building on the property that would serve students and members of the public alike as they develop new ideas, build prototypes and possibly launch small businesses.

The space under consideration is a 200-by-80-foot warehouse historically known as the Pipe Yard.

“The vision that is coalescing is not just a makerspace, but an entrepreneurship center. A lot of different possibilities are opened up with this model,” Karl Kehm said in a news release.

He is the assistant dean for grants and Joseph H. McLain associate professor of physics and environmental science and studies at Washington College.

Kehm is serving on a working group involving faculty, staff and community leaders that recently received a grant from the Maryland Technology Development Corporation to conduct a feasibility study.

“We don’t want to presuppose anything. That’s why we have the funding: to figure out what it is going to be,” he said in the news release. 

The combination of a makerspace and entrepreneurship center is the guiding principle, according to Kehm.

The $24,500 grant is funding a year-long process using community meetings and a spring semester class through which students will learn and apply research techniques to investigate what the regional community would like to see. 

The first opportunity for public input will be what is being advertised as a “community stakeholder meeting” at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11 at Sumner Hall, 206 South Queen St. in Chestertown.

The public is invited and encouraged to participate. 

Pat Nugent, the Thomas V. “Mike” Miller director for civic engagement at Washington College, is helping to organize the Oct. 11 session and contributing to the spring class.

He said the history and meaning of the site, especially for the nearby upper Calvert Street neighborhood, a historically Black community, makes it particularly important for the college and its neighbors to imagine together what the space might be.  

“It’s an opportunity for the college to plan a space together with community partners — a space that will be vibrant, filled with a diversity of learning and learners, and honor the important history that has taken place there,” Nugent said in the news release.

Creating a space that draws people from throughout the region to town is a goal shared by other members of the working group and by TEDCO itself, which awarded grants to 19 other colleges, economic development organizations and innovation spaces for makerspace projects across the state when it awarded the funding for a feasibility study to Washington.

Created through legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly, the makerspace program that TEDCO is administering aims to grow a statewide community of makerspaces that provides entrepreneurs with access to tools, technologies and knowledge to support their growth and development as well as expand workforce training. 

Chestertown Mayor David Foster has been a part of the working group that has begun considering opportunities for the college to develop a makerspace and entrepreneurial center.  

“I am thrilled about the progress of this joint project between Washington College and the people of Chestertown to convert a building no longer in use into a makerspace entrepreneurial center,” Foster said in the news release.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students, faculty and community members to collaborate, innovate and create,” the mayor said. “I believe this project will foster a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity and social impact in our region, and I fully support this initiative and look forward to seeing the results.” 

In addition to holding open meetings like the one on Oct. 11, the other main instrument for gauging community interests for the space will be surveys designed and conducted in the spring course, which will be taught by Caddie Putnam Rankin, chair of the Department of Business Management, and Sara Clarke-De Reza, chair of the Education Department.

Clarke-De Reza taught a research methods class last spring that will provide a model for this course.  

Brian Palmer is the director of IDEAWORKS Innovation Center, the college’s current makerspace, housed in the Clifton Miller Memorial Library.

He already has been using the 16,000-square-foot building at the center of the old Dixon Valve property with the electric boat team he advises to build the trimaran they are racing this year. 

Palmer said the building is a good fit for an expanded makerspace just from a logistical standpoint, given its added space and infrastructure, with large roll-up doors and electric power in multiple voltages supporting powerful tools that most facilities aren’t set up to support.

But like the others from Washington College working on the project, he is keen to allow the community conversation to proceed before firm plans are made, and he sees the potential in adding spaces and services beyond those of a traditional makerspace. 

“Although we have explored and supported student entrepreneurship, this expanded space could interweave this more deliberately and with support from more faculty and staff,” Palmer said in the news release.

With an expanded space that could include access for the public in some way, there is potential for Washington College students to gain additional views into the small businesses and innovators who might utilize the new space, Palmer said.

Professor Michael Harvey, who has championed the project as college President Mike Sosulski’s special assistant for strategic initiatives, said this could be an opportunity to advance a key point of the college’s strategic plan, which aims to “strengthen relationships with the town, county and region.”