Tuolumne County is taking back the space occupied by the InnovationLab in Sonora to use as offices for county departments that are currently housed in rented facilities.

As a result, the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority announced on Friday that the InnovationLab will officially close by Aug. 15.

The lab is located on the third floor of the former Tuolumne General Hospital at 101 Hospital Road, a building owned by the county.

Plans for the county to move departments out of rental facilities and into county-owned buildings were contained in the latest preliminary budget passed by the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors in June.

Deputy County Administrator Daniel Richardson said the move will save the county an estimated $40,000 a year on rent, though he declined to name which departments will be moved into the space that was once the hospital’s psychiatric ward.

“We’re still working on the final timing and which employees would be moved,” he said. “We don’t want to make it public without talking to them first.”

Richardson added that the decision was “in no way” a reaction to the recent Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury report that targeted the TCEDA, which oversaw the InnovationLab since its opening in August 2014.

The decision was also not a judgment on the quality of programs that the InnovationLab offered, Richardson said.

Larry Cope, executive director of the TCEDA, said the closing of the InnovationLab has been discussed over the past several months about how to ease some of the county’s financial constraints.

“They requested the space back, and in the spirit of partnership, we said definitely,” Cope said

Tenants

The InnovationLab was originally promoted as a membership-based “maker space” featuring state-of-the-art fabrication tools and prototyping equipment that people could use for a monthly fee.

In 2016, the TCEDA quietly phased out the membership program after being unable to attract enough members and began renting out low-cost space to start-ups, individuals, nonprofits and local schools.

Tenants are charged either nothing or between $150 and $250 per month. The TCEDA rents the entire space from the county for about $6,000 per year.

According to information provided by Deputy County Counsel Carlyn Drivdahl through a public records request, the tenants at the InnovationLab are:

• Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools, which has two offices that are not charged rent per the TCEDA’s policy to support education;

• Contour Logic, a trail planning and design business that’s not charged rent for up to two years as an “attraction client”;

• HealthLitNow, a nonprofit organization promoting health literacy that pays $150 per month;

• Larry Coughran, identified as a small business owner, who’s charged $200 a month;

• The Water School, an educational nonprofit in conjunction with Columbia College that’s charged $150 a month.

• Del Hodges, a small business owner and former elected county treasurer-tax collector, who’s charged $250 per month.

Drivdahl stated that there were no rental spaces available as of July 1.

Cope said the tenants were notified of the closing, and he’s working with some to find alternate space.

Some have questioned whether renting the space to HealthLitNow was a conflict of interest because its co-founder and president, Barry Hillman, also serves on the TCEDA Board of Directors.

The grand jury also found that Jim Gianelli, a Sonora attorney, serves on the board of both the TCEDA and HealthLitNow, while Cope serves as HealthLitNow’s treasurer.

Cope said he consulted with the County Counsel’s Office before signing any leases to ensure there were no legal issues.

Equipment

A former member of the InnovationLab recently said most of the industrial equipment was removed in 2016 around the time when the TCEDA began phasing out the membership program.

Cope said the equipment was put into storage when they made the transition because the industrial room was the least popular at the facility.

“After trying to run it as a maker space, we tried to run it as an office space because it was more in demand,” he said. “If people needed the tools, we would roll them out of storage.”

Prior to the InnovationLab’s opening, the Sonora Area Foundation provided a $22,000 grant to purchase equipment.

Cope said he will consult with the TCEDA board and organizations that provided money for equipment about what to do with it after the InnovationLab closes. He added that all of the computers remain at the lab and will also be distributed as the board sees fit.

The lab opened with several 3D printers for fabricating plastic prototypes, a hallmark of most maker spaces. Cope said at least two of the printers broke over the years, while others were donated to area schools.

Despite the sudden end, Cope said he wouldn’t consider the experiment a failure.

Cope sent a press release via email on Friday to announce the closure that stated the facility had hosted and funded school STEM competitions, held pitch events for local entrepreneurs, and provided technology training classes, among other things.

“When we opened up the InnovationLab, we knew we were testing to see how it would work,” he said. “We could never get enough members to join … that’s why we went to the office space model so that it would be at least sustainable.”

Doomed from the start?

Gina Lujan, founding CEO of Hacker Lab in Sacramento, was hired by Cope in 2013 as a consultant to study the viability of a maker space in a rural area like Tuolumne County.

Lujan helped launch the first public-private maker space in the county that has helped to fund 20 more maker spaces throughout the state. She was named to the Sacramento Business Journal’s list of top executives in 2013.

“My goal was basically to find the crazy, innovative, like-minded people to see if there was enough community and resources to sustain a space,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Because of Tuolumne County, I can confidently say that there can be a maker space anywhere.”

She said the contract with the county was her first consulting job. She charged $5,000 at the time, though now her company charges $100,000 for similar work.

Part of the study involved meeting with local businesses, high school engineering and robotics teams and artists, which was how Lujan became connected with the Greater Good, an artist collective based in Sonora that had members ranging from software engineers to machinists.

Lujan, the TCEDA, and Greater Good collaborated on two maker-related events over the course of a weekend that drew more than 100 people, including some from as far as Oakdale, Modesto and Manteca, according to her report on the study.

Some of the tips Lujan provided in her report focused on the TCEDA collaborating with the local “maker/hacker community” to make the InnovationLab successful, such as forming an educational nonprofit that would operate the facility.

“These spaces need to be organically run by the community, and whoever is fiscally sponsoring or administering it is kind of overseeing that, but it needs to be let loose,” Lujan said on Thursday.

However, members of the Greater Good, who were recruited to help launch the InnovationLab, say the progression of the project prior to opening was far from organic.

After Lujan completed her work, the Greater Good formed the Motherlode Makers group to help in the development and launch of the InnovationLab.

Jen Fletcher, a member of the Greater Good who served as the group’s liaison with Cope, said they heard about maker spaces becoming popular and wanted to look into creating one in Sonora.

Fletcher said Cope visited the group’s art gallery, formerly located on Linoberg Street, and offered to team up on the project.

“We explained our goal that it would be something for the community, for kids and adults, and that it would be centered around art and technology,” she said of their early interactions with Cope. “His thing was the TCEDA wanted it to be community led.”

One of the ideas was for the group to essentially serve as staff at the facility to help people use the equipment.

The first signs of trouble appeared when Cope told them he had secured the third floor of the former Tuolumne General Hospital for the space without their input, though Fletcher said they didn’t want to complain because they were grateful to have a spot.

Fletcher said the group volunteered their time on weekends to prepare the space for the InnovationLab, which included scrubbing the floors and walls of the former psych ward.

“It sounds gross and it was gross, but this was how badly we wanted it to happen,” she said.

The group started asking to meet with other partners in the project, but Fletcher said Cope told her that all communication with the TCEDA board would go through him.

In May 2014, one month after the TCEDA received the $22,000 grant from the Sonora Area Foundation for the InnovationLab’s equipment, Cope sent an email to Fletcher that effectively ended the partnership.

Cope stated in an email that he had found champagne and beer bottles in the lab, which was still under renovation, and that electrical plates or covers had been removed. He also stated any modifications to the facility had to first be approved by him in writing.

A photo attached to the email showed empty beer bottles in a recycling can.

In the email, Cope also stated he was cutting off the group’s access to the lab until its opening and bringing in contractors and volunteers to finish the work.

He wrote that he was eliminating the planned “kids” room and no one under 18 would be allowed in the facility, cutting programs for photography, sewing and apparel manufacturing, and was keeping ownership of the Motherlode Makers meet-up group to run activities once the lab opened.

“None of what is discussed in this email is up for debate,” Cope stated in the email to Fletcher. “These are the rules and that is it.”

Fletcher and others in the group denied that they were doing anything improper while cleaning the third floor. She admitted they had some beers, but they were all adults and volunteering their time.

She also noted that several of the early meetings with Lujan involved beer and were held at the Standard Pour restaurant in Standard.

Lujan’s report encourages “bi-weekly beer nights” as a way for local techies to meet up, which she stated is “part of the social culture of the tech community.”

After the partnership with the TCEDA broke down, Fletcher said she tried to avoid even driving by the building for months because she was crushed by the way it unraveled.

She and others from the group later linked up with the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, now called Tuolumne County Arts, that offered them space in the KASA building on the Sonora Dome campus to the create what is now the Motherlode MakerLab.

The new lab is sustained by a group of about a dozen paying members who offer the space and use of the equipment for free to anyone in the community on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Some of the equipment includes computers, 3D printers, and laser cutters

Cope disagreed with the group’s interpretation of events.

He said that they parted pays due to differing opinions about what the InnovationLab was to become, and that he and his wife spent many hours of their own time over the summer of 2014 preparing the facility for its grand opening on Aug. 5 that year.

“My wife and myself took our own time to do all of the cleaning, painting, prep, setup and everything,” he said. “We took an entire summer and spent our weekends and evenings working on the InnovationLab to get it ready for the grand opening in August.”

Richard Call, a designer, programmer and machinist who lives in Sonora, was around for the rise and fall of the Motherlode Makers’ partnership with the TCEDA and shared Fletcher’s sentiments about what happened.

Call said the group dedicated hundreds of hours of volunteer time and money out of their own pockets in hopes that the InnovationLab would be a success.

“Even with everything that went down, I was hoping the InnovationLab would be successful because I still wanted that for the community,” he said. “We did spin our wheels and waste a lot of money, but a lot of that wasn’t wasted because we got Motherlode MakerLabs.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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