It’s probably appropriate that there is an overhead door on the southeast wall of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown. The workshop behind is looks like something out a garage tinkerer’s dream.
The space is filled with an assortment of work benches, there is typically a bicycle in some state of disrepair in one corner, a couple of unused computer monitors are stashed here and there and a variety of electronic equipment, odd lumber and tools are piled throughout the space.
But this isn’t your father’s garage. Yesterday’s tinkerers are known today as “hackers” and the “hackerspace” sponsored by the Allentown Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) has become a significant component in building and energizing a new creative class across the Lehigh Valley.
Together with Lehigh Valley Tech and the Hive4A co-working space across the hall used by independent contractors from the Allentown area, the “Make Lehigh Valley” hackerspace is becoming a gathering spot for a new generation of would-be inventors, game and app developers, woodworkers and other tinkerers who use the space to work on projects, network, solve problems and generally support each other.
“We are kind of formalizing the old concept of the garage workshop,” says Anthony Durante, Economic Development Specialist with AEDC. “We’re giving them space and equipment and the ability to work with other people who want to build something and see if they can make it work.”
The merger of the old “do-it-yourself” mentality with modern technology and entrepreneurship has even attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which reported in 2009 that hackerspaces are popping up across the country. One supplier that provides electronic parts to hackers has seen multi-million-dollar growth in its business in recent years and “Make” magazine, which caters to the growing trend, saw a circulation jump from 22,000 to more than 100,000 readers between 2005 and 2009, the Journal reported.
Josiah Ritchie, a professional systems administrator who served as the first president of Make Lehigh Valley, said Make Lehigh Valley’s collaboration with AEDC has been “a great partnership. They have the space, they have the room,” he continued. “One of the great obstacles for groups like this is finding space that is affordable.”
The twice-weekly open “hacks” regularly draw up to two dozen participants, say Durante and AEDC Assistant Director Matthew Tuerk. Bridgeworks also hosts “Developer Fridays” on the first Friday of every month. Targeted more at software, web and mobile application developers, the popular monthly gatherings offer much of the same support and networking opportunities as Make Lehigh Valley.
Meanwhile, Lehigh Valley Tech, a meet-up group born in Hive 4A, has grown significantly and in many ways ties together the developers and hackers with monthly programs and social networking.
“The people doing this are not necessarily doing it for economic development reasons. They are doing it out of common interests,” says Tuerk. “Our hope is that those folks getting together will be the creative leaders in entrepreneurship and we can help them if they want to start businesses based on their ideas.
“We’re willing to take it slow. There is a need for entrepreneurship but there is also a need for this type of space to appeal to the creative class,” he said.