Could Portland's Makers Spark A New Industrial Revolution?

ADX founder Kelly Roy explores the potential of small, hands-on workspaces and their impact on the industrial economy.

By Zach Dundas October 19, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

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At ADX in Southeast Portland, an old, rusty crosscut saw hangs over the front desk as a sort of decorative statement of intent. But members of the four-year-old communal workshop are more interested in using ADX’s precision cutting tools, electronics gear, and band saw. In her new book, Portland Made, ADX founder Kelley Roy argues that diverse, hands-on workspaces like this could anchor a new American industrial base. (Earlier this year, Roy publicly declined an invite to meet President Obama on Nike’s campus, blasting US trade policies for undermining American manufacturing. Read on for details!) Can “maker” go from buzzword to powering our economy? Roy—product of both Virginia horse country and gritty ’90s indie Portland—argues that all it takes is a little elbow grease.

I was a competitive equestrian from age 5 to age 17. I was hard-core. In Virginia, where I grew up, I was competing against the Firestones and the duPonts. I didn’t come from poverty, at all, but when I went to the Firestone stables—Jesus. They had armies of workers training their horses.

I tried to take a more practical path, and studied geology in college. But the only companies that came a-courtin’ were oil companies. So I decided to move to Portland. When I came here in 94, basically for the music scene, it wasn’t like the big and flashy
Seattle scene. It was more underground. I tend to be drawn to people who are scrappy, who are taking big chances. I like things with a gutsy flavor, and a little punk rock edge.

There seemed to be a real hunger for a raw creative space where people could get together.There have always been spaces like that around Portland, but really no one behind them to give them structure and intention and power. I like seeing things happening all over in a disconnected way and bringing them together. I hate the word “empowerment,” but sometimes you have to make a special effort to show that a collective force can really make a difference.

For me, a “maker” is someone physically making something, using a wide variety of tools and materials. There’s a physical product. And then you bring in manufacturing, and scale. Think of the homebrewer who opens a brewery. Scale: you can make 10 or 10,000, but that’s what we’re talking about. To me, that’s the difference between selling something cute on Etsy and being a maker. The movement isn’t just about tinkering with things and cute kids building robots. It has the potential to have an incredible impact on our economy. It’s not big money, like tech, and it’s not selling out. It’s doing your thing and making a living, and I really believe in supporting that.

Last spring, I got invited to the White House as part of a makers’ roundtable of people from cities around the country. And at about the same time, Obama was coming to Portland to talk about international trade, and I was invited to go to his event at Nike. And I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Our trade policies have destroyed our manufacturing base, and meanwhile things are blowing up in Baltimore and Ferguson and all these other places that don’t have economic opportunity. When Obama talks about onshoring and reshoring, it sounds good. But if you want to onshore manufacturing, you can’t keep giving tax breaks to companies that move manufacturing jobs overseas.

If I had gone out to Nike, it would have been a nonstory. Who the hell cares if I go to Nike to see Obama? The fact that I stood up for something got a ton of attention.

Things don’t have to be big to be important. A very diversified economy is actually better, and more resilient, than one reliant on a few major employers. Let’s look at this amazing movement—people making beer, and bikes, and chocolates. That needs a voice.

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