Is Knoxville becoming known as ‘THE MAKER CITY?’

Step aside, “Scruffy City.” Knoxville is pushing for a new nickname — one that coincides with a movement that’s been happening for some time now.

Local entrepreneurs and government officials would like Knoxville to become known as The Maker City. With nearly 150 makers registered in a local database and a maker’s summit happening this weekend, Knoxville may have the street cred to back it up.

Creativity is ‘in our DNA’

The term “maker” is one that started out in the tech space but has since expanded, said Maranda Vandergriff, creative director of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. KEC is one of the major supporters of Knoxville’s maker movement.

“As the maker movement picked up steam, as the shop local movement has run parallel with it, it’s expanded to encompass artists and hobbyists,” she said. “Anything you can make that is a handmade good or creative service, that’s what we define as a maker.”

That includes fashion designers, people who work in media and manufacturers who work with metal or wood.

 In 2016, two local makers and a KEC representative attended the Etsy Maker Cities Summit in Brooklyn. Roughly four months after their return, Mayor Madeline Rogero formed the Mayor’s Maker Council, Knoxville hosted its own maker’s summit and the city became one of the first to be proclaimed an official Etsy Maker City.

But the maker spirit goes back way further than 2016, Vandergriff said, as Knoxville has been a hot spot for manufacturing since the 20th century.

“There is a history,” said Patricia Robledo, business liaison for the city’s Office of Business Support. “We talk about it being in our DNA. We are doing very well in supporting each other and building up the maker community.”

Collaboration is key

Pretentious Glass Company has been in the Old City since 2014. Owner Matthew Cummings believes the business has been successful, in part, because it’s based in Knoxville.

There are local patrons who bring business, and there is an unsaturated, supportive maker community, Cummings said. Plus, the government support is huge, he said.

“The mayor, recognizing the momentum we have being recognized as a maker city, set up this government council that can support what we’ve got going on,” said Cummings, who sits on the council. “That’s amazing.”

The support from government is making it easier for makers to support each other. Led by the Mayor’s Maker Council, acts as an online community gathering space for the local maker movement.

“The Maker City is kind of an effort to bring together all the players to be a brand that different makers can unite under and sort of exist as the connective tissues that connects different organizations, the city, makers and the community,” Vandergriff said.

One of the main components of the website is the online directory, which has roughly 150 members. Cummings said he believes this database only includes about half of the makers actually working and living in Knoxville.

People interested in buying a specific good or refurbishing their business can visit the online directory to find somebody who produces that good or can carry out a project.

When it comes to building the maker community, collaboration is key, Cummings said.

“It just pushes the movement along,” he said. “If someone approaches me for a project that’s not my strong suit, maybe more metal-based, I know three people in town I’ll send that job to.”

One of the most important events for makers, Cummings said, is The Maker City Summit, which will take place for the third time Sunday.

“It’s amazing because it acts as a beacon for the maker community and gets everyone together for one day,” he said. “The most important thing with the summit coming up is it gives the local community and the city a chance to spotlight makers. Any time we have this exposure, it helps us year-round.”

The Maker City Summit

The first summit was thrown together in just four weeks and still had roughly 400 people show up. The turnout was consistent the following year.

The third annual event will be held Sunday at The Mill & Mine. It starts at 10 a.m. with workshops, panels, keynote sessions and one-on-one sessions with makers happening throughout the day until 6 p.m.

“There’s a lot of broad topics like branding, marketing and different things different business people can take away from it,” Vandergriff said. “But it’s specifically geared toward makers that are looking to grow their business or start their business — people who are already creating something.”

Panels will discuss topics such as dealing with rejection, balancing work life and identifying target customers — all things that are important in careers that often come with uncertainty.

“There is a lot of fear and unknown that comes with being an entrepreneur or small business owner or artist, and jumping off to pursue that creative passion,” Vandergriff said.

Often creative careers come with anxieties about running a business, managing finances, not having benefits or not having a fixed income, Vandergriff said.

“We‘re trying to help ease some of those anxieties,” said Vandergriff, who is a maker, herself. “The most valuable thing I have gained from the summit is being able to surround myself with this community and have people to look up to.”

For a list of this year’s speakers and for more information about the summit, visit

Looking ahead

The short-term goal of the summit, Vandergriff said, is to build creative partnerships. However, she hopes to make Knoxville’s “Maker City” nickname as popular as our “Music City” neighbor a few hours to the west.

“We want it to be the most maker-friendly place,” Vandergriff said. “We want makers to be thriving and the community to be aware of this movement that’s going on.”

She envisions maker education in schools, maker apprenticeships and lots of shared maker space throughout the city.

The city’s vision is quite similar.

Robledo said the office of business support was created by Rogero, who is on board with the “Maker City” nickname. The office deals with newer business models that may not have ordinances.

“We want to be a city that’s open-minded and welcomes you and your business model,” Robledo said. “We have tried our best to make it happen. … I think everybody is coming together with this maker movement. There’s a lot of synergy.”

One of the biggest ways the city is working to support the maker movement is through recoding.

“Often, manufacturing connotes industrial zoning,” Robledo said. “We understand makers are micro-manufacturers. We are making sure recoding addresses that.”

Robledo said the maker movement makes economic sense for Knoxville and that “it also adds vibrancy to the city.”

The city is looking to contribute to that vibrancy through a building it owns at 1200 McCalla Ave., Robledo said.

The building has been used by the Knoxville Police Department in the past, and the city would like to see the 6,033-square-foot building redeveloped into a maker space.

Robledo said it’s important for makers to work together and for the city to work with makers to get Knoxville widely recognized as The Maker City.

“Through the past few years we’ve really seen a spirit of community and collaboration that is talked about a lot in the creative industry — community over competition,” Vandergriff said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in Knoxville.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Ryan Wilusz

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Published September 20, 2018