At Forge Greensboro, Up-and-Coming Entrepreneurs Can Set Up Shop and Use Machinery

Ronnie Staton stands over a Boss Laser Cutter. Underneath a hood of tinted plastic, the machine fires into a sheet of plywood, carving out dozens of little ornaments shaped like Santa’s heads.

Ronnie is one of the makers at Forge Greensboro. At the laser cutter, he also crafts wooden earrings, sunglasses, necklaces and combs.

“If I can think of it, I can make it in here,” he says. “I come here, and all the tools I need are here. What The Forge has done is given me the opportunity to create.”

About 200 people work out of Forge Greensboro, among them, metalsmiths, woodworkers, ceramicists and clothing designers.

Tucked into the back of Lewis Street, the shared maker space offers the use of lathes, mills, 3D printers and sewing machines, along with the Boss Laser Cutter. The 8,000-square-foot facility has attracted a number of people who are looking to get a business off the ground but don’t have the capital for their own space and machinery.

“The general idea is that we’re like a gym for people who like to build things,” says executive director Joe Rotondi. “People pay month to month and get 24/7 access to the facility and use it how they will. For some people, that’s just accessing a hobby affordably. For others, it’s about learning new skills. And there are people who are trying to make some income.”

A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Forge Greensboro got its start in 2013. Joey Adams was doing some wood and metalwork at the time and began reaching out to others to gauge whether they had any interest in sharing the expense for a workspace.

“I was looking for like-minded people who wanted to do some things outside of our garages and work together on some projects,” he says. “We started having twice-a-month meetups in coffee shops. Started out slow. One person showed up at first, and then two people showed up, and then 15 people and then 30 over the course of a few months.”

The group set up shop with some donated equipment inside what is now Fainting Goat Spirits on Lewis Street. The building had once been a blacksmith shop (hence the name “Forge”).

During Forge Greensboro’s first year, its makers formed 16 businesses and filed nine patents, according to Joel Leonard, who has served as community developer for the organization.

Within about two years, it had outgrown the 3,400-square-foot space at the former blacksmith shop and moved down the street to its current home, a former nightclub that had been renovated by local developer Andy Zimmerman, who sits on the organization’s board.

Forge Greensboro has received a good deal of support from the City of Greensboro and from organizations such as the Cemala Foundation, the Lincoln Financial Foundation and the Weaver Foundation. AZ Development donated $80,000 to make it capable of meeting the electrical needs of the equipment. Local companies and institutions have donated machinery.

In December, the organization hosted an event to unveil a CNC mill, which it acquired with a grant from the Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation. Many of the organization’s makers were in attendance showing off their wares.

Joe says the organization is looking to expand its educational programming in the near future. Members host a number of classes, ranging from spoon carving to leathercraft to welding. About 2,000 people have taken a class through the organization since 2014.

“A lot of groups, schools, nonprofits come into the Forge and use it as a way to introduce people to new career paths,” Joe says. “We’re looking at working our curriculum in a way that people can come and get a sampler of different skills and then connect them with ways they can expand those skills.”

Those at the organization range from costume and prop makers to a group of engineering students who built a drift car. Individual memberships begin at $54 a month. The environment is a collaborative one.

“People cross over and help each other,” Joe says. “You’ll see welders help out 3D printers with something; people who are laser engraving are working with woodworkers. People are coming up with ideas they wouldn’t have thought of if they hadn’t been in the same space talking with people who have different skill sets. And I really enjoy that element, trying to get people to interact and having those conversations with each other.”

Matt Kelly, section head over the metal shop, has been at Forge Greensboro for three years. He has a business making trophy bases and says he’s learned plenty from the other craftspeople there.

“I’ve never had a question that wasn’t answered by the members here,” he says. “It’s a good place to come learn skills, to come diversify what you know. And you can pass some stuff on.”

Jennifer Jennette, section head over textiles, has a clothing business and teaches a pattern making class. Among her creations is a Rey Star Wars costume.

“It’s a great community here,” she says. “People are very cool, willing to help. At home, I had the equipment I needed, but I was really lonely working out of my house. And I want to be able to offer my skills. I feel what happens here is a group effort.”