READI for takeoff: Propeller hopes to receive grant

Organizers behind Columbus’s new makerspace expect to find out soon if they’ve been awarded a little over a half-million dollars from the state’s Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative.

Columbus Propeller hopes to receive $580,000 in READI grant funds over the next three years, according to Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Frey. These dollars would help cover the costs of staffing, overhead and equipment for the makerspace.

“It is not 100% official, because it’s a very, very long process,” Frey said. “We’re about 75% of the way there. But we’re anticipating good news in the next two weeks.”

The South Central Indiana Talent Region — which includes Bartholomew, Jackson and Jennings counties, as well as Edinburgh — was awarded a $30 million READI grant in December. The competitive grant program encouraged Indiana communities to partner together on proposals for future growth and improvement in their region, particularly in regards to talent attraction and retention.

One of the projects included in the local region’s proposal was Columbus Propeller, which has been described as a space for both makers and entrepreneurs. It is located in two buildings that are owned by the airport and were previously occupied by Cummins, Inc, which had used the space for testing engines. The facility, which is still under development, offers 3D printers, woodworking equipment, metalworking equipment and an electronics lab.

“The READI grant, if we’re successful — and I’m confident we will be — is going to allow us to buy a couple pieces of equipment that we haven’t gotten donated,” said Frey. “So a plasma cutter, a higher-end 3D printer and maybe one more piece of equipment if our budget allows. So that’s going to be a real draw to people; it’s the kind of thing people don’t necessarily have in their own garage shops.”

She said that, within the proposed grant, about $70,000 is budgeted for equipment; the rest is for staffing and overhead. In regards to staffing, the READI grant would allow Propeller to offer some extensive training programs for STEM or STEAM activities.

Staffing has been a challenge in providing more open hours at the facility, Frey said. Propeller’s hours are limited to 5-8 p.m. on Wednesday nights and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month.

Rushton said that they’ve been relying solely on volunteers and have a good “core group” of these individuals.

“We now we think we are to a point, and we think we have the right level of staffing and support to go ahead and open up more frequently on July 9,” he said. “So July 9 is going to be sort of a kickoff event where we are going to bring active members and then people who are interested in becoming members.”

Propeller plans to hold a safety orientation, member cookout and facility tours on July 9, with the event beginning at 11 a.m.

Frey said that they then plan to expand their hours and are still in the process of determining what times to offer.

“A couple of things are still in the air, but we think in the next couple of days we’ll know whether we’ve got the READI grant and we’ll know when we’re going to be staffing for Phase II,” she said. “Phase I has been this volunteer-supported, one Saturday a month, every Wednesday night. Phase II will be like, maybe two days and a weekend time period. And then Phase III will be most evenings and most weekend days. And we think we’ll be to Phase III by August.”

At present, Propeller has about 20 paying members; Frey estimated that board members from the organization make up about a third of this number. In regards to attendance, she said that they’ve had about eight or nine people at “open house” nights.

“At least,” said Rushton. “Some nights, there’s been significantly more here and there.”

He estimated that attendance on their second Saturday open hours is about the same, though it’s hard to tell as people come and go throughout the day.