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Creating a community hub; artist transform parking garage in Tamaqua

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    Kevin Smith II explains his dream of turning an old warehouse/knitting mill at 27 Pine St., Tamaqua, into an artist colony. It will feature a lounge, 10 artist studios and an audio recording studio. KATHY KUNKEL/TIMES NEWS

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    The sign for Wagonworks depicts different tools which will one day be part of a collaborative makerspace in Tamaqua.

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    These molds were designed and used by artist Kevin Smith II to create lifelike puppets which Smith uses in podcasts.

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    The second floor of 27 Pine St., Tamaqua, will feature a lounge, ten artist studios and an audio recording studio.

Published September 22. 2018 07:12AM

When Kevin Smith II purchased the old Wagonworks building on Pine Street in Tamaqua last year, it was with dreams of creating a community hub, a makerspace, for artists, artisans, crafters and the community.

His vision wasn’t so readily visible to most people though, as the three-story commercial structure had most recently served as a parking garage. The first floor was covered with the dust and road dirt typical of such a structure. Here, Smith envisions working craftsmen creating works of art with messier tools, such as welders or blacksmiths, as well as a showcase gallery. “The concrete floors lend themselves to those types of crafts. Hot metal or welding sparks won’t cause any damage,” says Smith.

The upper stories were in worse shape. While the previous owner had replaced the roof, there were lots of small openings and uneven window frames that allowed those areas to basically become pigeon coops. “The floor was covered in pigeon feces and littered with the bodies of dead pigeons,” says Smith, who used good old-fashioned elbow grease to clean up the mess.

Parts of the ceiling had to be replaced due to water damage from before the new roof, so Smith decided to tear out all the old plaster, allowing the wooden ceiling beams to be revealed. That’s still a work in progress on the second floor, but the third floor is showcased by a high vaulted ceiling in the center of the room.

The vision

Smith envisions turning the third floor into video and audio production studios, complete with props and sets.

The second floor will feature 10 studios where artists and craftsmen will be able to work; a lounge area; a kitchenette; a studio for podcasts; restrooms; and a collaborative woodworking shop.

As of now, the bottom floor is still being used as a parking garage, albeit a bit cleaner, with the rent money used for the basic upkeep of the building as well as paying the taxes. “The rent money from parking gives me some breathing room,” says Smith, “Time to do it right.”

The second floor already has the restrooms, lounge and podcast studio, as well as placement markings for the studios.

A bit of a “jack of all trades,” Smith repurposes any wood or other items removed during the restoration process.

Such a huge undertaking takes more than dreams and hard work. It takes a lot of financing.

Funding the dream

After purchasing the building, Smith began researching ways to attract investors. His first foray was to take his idea to Schuylkill County’s version of Shark Tank, Penn State’s LionLaunch program.

LionLaunch is Penn State Schuylkill’s community-based entrepreneurship program that was established in 2016. It provides funding and mentorship to start and grow businesses, as well as a community competition where winners receive startup funding, training and mentorship from industry, faculty and economic development professionals. Smith pitched his dream during the program’s business plan competition and was awarded a $5,000 grant. He used those funds to upgrade the electrical service and to install the restrooms.

With those two items checked off his to-do list, Smith began searching for other financial options. With the help of the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership and Rural LISC, he turned to Kiva, an international nonprofit organization based in San Fransisco.

Kiva is a crowdsourcing entity that deals with loans rather than donations to help borrowers start up or grow businesses, go to school, access clean energy or realize their potential. One hundred percent of every dollar loaned through Kiva goes to funding loans. Any operating costs are covered through optional donations, grants and sponsors.

Potential borrowers, such as Smith, apply for a loan. If the application is approved, the borrower has 15 days to privately attract 17 people willing to lend them a minimum of $25. If that goal is reached, the crowdfunding goes public, with a goal of reaching $6,000 in loans within 45 days. For Smith’s Wagonworks dream, Rural LISC offered to match the private loans, enabling his project to go public within hours. Two days later, the goal was reached.

Borrowers are required to pay back the loans.

The loan money will be used to continue refurbishing the building to prevent further damage as well as create new studio spaces. Several artist spaces are already in the process of being set up. The artists include Smith; his wife, Lauren Hamby; Craig Bulger; Jon McCoy; Stephen Goodale; and Xavier Cuadrado.

Smith sees the Wagonworks makerspace as a hub for the community, “where people come together to share ideas, creativity and skills across generations.”

A transplant from the Los Angeles area, Smith’s family moved to Tamaqua about nine years ago. He has been very active with Stonehedge Gardens in South Tamaqua and created Tamaqua’s Seed House at his home on Market Street. An artist meet and greet at the Tamaqua Community Arts Center in 2016 introduced the public to his puppet creations.

Smith also designed and painted one of the fiberglass hearts for the Tamaqua Has Heart project. His most visible work is the patriotic mural he created for the Tamaqua Remembers observance of Memorial Day. The mural is located on a retaining wall at Cottage Avenue and Memorial Street, in the area of the Tamaqua American Legion.

Keep up with his progress, as well as blogs and podcasts, at the Wagonworks Facebook page or at www.wagonworks.org.

Smith hopes to have Wagonworks open to the community sometime in late spring or early summer 2019, providing access to many different forms of art. “The community needs different tools in its toolbar. Not everyone is interested or involved in sports. I’m looking at this as a way to inspire people to follow their dreams.”

To budding artists and entrepreneurs, or anyone with a dream, Smith says “People all think differently. Don’t expect everyone to understand your dreams. Don’t get discouraged. Keep working hard and your dreams can come true.”

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