Maker-District-4The demise of local retail stores has been painful to watch. Empty storefronts and weed-infested parking lots are gut-wrenching symbols of community decay.

So if I told you there was an immediate way to turn this around, would that catch your attention?

This whole transformation in thinking started with a short visit on Saturday to “The Source,” an artisan food market inside a former 1880‘s brick foundry in Denver’s River North District.

Located far away from most retail, I quickly became enamored with how this eclectic mix of 15 shops could attract a packed house on a cold wintery day in February to an industrial part of town.

This brief experience caused me to spend countless hours over the following days researching similar developments around the country. For me, the collision course of intersecting trends in retail has become a full-blown obsession. (Just for the record, obsessions are underrated.)

To summarize briefly:

  • The first shopping mall was born in Edina, MN in 1956. After peaking in 1990, there have been no new malls built in the U.S. since 2006.
  • Big-box retailing was born in 1962. That’s the year when Wal-Mart, K-Mart and Target all opened their first big stores. After 50 years of putting mom and pops out of business, big-box retail is now struggling.
  • In 1994, Jeff Bezos launched Amazon as an online bookseller. Twenty years later it has emerged as the primary reason big-box stores are shutting down.
  • In 2005, MAKE Magazine published it’s first issue, signaling the beginning of the makers movement. Words like “handcrafted,” “home grown,” “authentic,” and “artisan original,” suddenly entered the public lexicon.

With retail stores closing, consumers are left with fewer options for out-of-the-home forms of entertainment, and a pent-up demand for meaningful experiences.

This collision course of trends is creating the perfect storm for the next retail revolution – Maker Districts.

A maker district can best be described as a cross between an artist colony, farmers market, woodworking shop, music festival, bakery, brewpub, and brainstorming session all happening in the same space. It’s all that and more.

Here’s why I see Maker Districts entering your lives in a big way.

Making jewelry

The Maker District Advantage 

With online storefronts like Amazon flourishing, the need to run down to the local store and pick something up has been replaced with a few clicks of the mouse and a UPS guy knocking on your door the following day.

But consumers are getting restless. As mind numbing as it might have been to run to the store and pick up a bag of flour, there was always the chance of running into someone unexpectedly.

Coffee shops have replaced retail stores as the next best place to hang out. Most are busy, noisy places, but fresh coffee is constantly being brewed and people love to feel part of the maker experience.

The maker experience comes in many different forms, most of which are on the opposite end of the spectrum from coffee.

There are several reasons why Maker Districts are on the verge of turning traditional retail on it’s head.

First, people love to watch things being made. Every source of creation is also the source of inspiration.

Second, small mom and pop businesses have a vested interest in building their community. No, they probably aren’t the most sophisticated, tech savvy business people, but artisan products don’t need to compete on price, and they only need to earn enough for a comfortable lifestyle. These are people that are doing what they love, not changing the world.

Finally, from a real estate standpoint, the time it takes to refill an empty big box center with a Maker District can be a fraction of the time it takes to bring in another large-scale retailer. Cities will love having sales tax revenues replaced quickly and neighbors will love being part of the new experience.

“The Source” in Denver’s River North District

Planning a Maker District

It’s no longer good enough to see a painting, people want to witness the artist painting it. Being “authentic” goes far deeper than buying a limited edition copy “signed by the artist.”

Walking through an active, vibrant shopping district where people are baking bread, spinning pottery, brewing beer, making jewelry, cutting and designing stained glass, decorating cakes, molding with pewter, and sculpting with clay, will give every visitor their own one-of-a-kind experience.

In addition to the sights and smells, having musicians performing mood-stirring music will help establish a different character and flavor with every visit.

In this environment, creative people are both the entertainment and the proprietors of the shops.

Not only will this be a showcase for talent, it will attract audiences that are hungry for inspiration.

Fresh bread straight from the oven

Makers take Center Stage

All of the shops in a Maker District needs to support the idea of “making the products being sold.” Small, intimate storefronts ranging from 600 to 1,600 sq. ft., built around niche verticals will enable them to focus their resources.

Every storefront needs to be a local enterprise. No franchises or national brands.

Restaurants will be the anchor tenants, and various other food shops will add essential ingredients to the mix. Freshly made food helps intensify the smells and ambiance of the shopping experience. Possible food-related shops may include:

  • Restaurants
  • Cookie shops
  • Home made candy shops
  • Home made ice cream
  • Pretzel shops
  • Bread bakeries
  • Donut and sweet roll bakeries
  • Meat markets
  • Fudge shops
  • Custom health food makeries

In addition to restaurants and food shops, there should be a number of drink shops ranging from coffee shops to breweries. Option in this area will include:

  • Coffee roaster, brewers
  • Tea cutters, brewers, and mixers
  • Energy drink mixatoriums
  • Smoothie and protein drinks
  • Hand crafted beers
  • Cideries
  • Distilleries

Legalized marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington will soon see similar prohibition-ending efforts spreading across the nation. This will open the door for shops such as:

  • Artisan marijuana
  • Weederies
  • Food lacing shops
  • Custom edibles

In addition to consumables, creators of any number of hand-made products will find a welcome reception in this environment.

  • Custom one-of-a-kind furniture
  • Artisan clocks and time pieces
  • Jewelry makers – rings, earrings, and necklaces
  • Clothing, scarves, caps, ponchos, and headbands
  • Custom made shoes
  • Musical instruments
  • Handbags, backpacks, and carrying cases
  • Clay sculptures, bronze sculptures, stained glass
  • Painting, drawings, sketches, and etchings
  • Pottery, basket weaving, and woodworking

Adding to the mix will be next generation hyper-personalized product makers.

As an example, BoXZY just introduced an unusual fabrication machine with three personal fabrication devices built into a single machine – CNC mill, 3D printer, and a laser engraver. The CNC mill can shave and refine aluminum, hardwood, and plastic into small intricate designs, while the 3D printer can fabricate many complex shapes. The laser engraver is perfect for searing names, logos, and even photos into wood, cardboard, leather, and plastic.

Support Services

Complementary to the maker community on the main floor, will be a variety of support services that can be added to 2nd and 3rd floors of the building. These might include:

  • Designer and fabricator services
  • Architects, landscape designers, and interior decorators
  • Maker spaces and other educational support facilities
  • Coworking and business colonies

Woodworking at its finest

Final Thoughts 

Talent attracts talent, and creative genius will inspire other creative genius.

Even though a newly opened Maker District will have merchants scrambling to make their businesses operational, they will also be inspiring a new generation of young people with their energy, focus, and enthusiasm.

Maker Districts will be the community catalyst for a host of other ventures. Creative people provide the spark of imagination, and local evangelists will help promote ingenuity and inspiration to virtually every other aspect of the community.

A sleepy, uninspired town can be instantly transformed into a community known for its brilliance.

Out of every Maker District will come the uniqueness that every town, village, and city has been seeking.

Most of these elements already exist. The breakthrough innovation of a Maker District will be in how they are incentivized and assembled into a highly respected place in their own community.


By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything



18 Responses to “Blueprint for a Makers District”

Comments List

  1. Daniel Nathaniel

    Hilo, Hawaii, where I live, has seen this part of the trend in the last year or so with a place appropriately named "The Makery." As a small town we have many of the other elements - Farmers Markets, local bakeries, etc., but they are spread out. Having them concentrated would make for a more interesting experience. Though, I suppose, little by little, the whole downtown has been moving in this direction for a long time since the inevitable malls and big box stores opened. It had nowhere else to go. For the record, it is a working class town that attracts more travelers than tourists as opposed to the more popular parts of the islands.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Hi Daniel, Thanks for mentioning "The Makery" in Hilo. There are similar projects around the country as well as in other parts of the world. One of the keys, as you've indicated, is getting sufficient critical mass within a certain area to draw a crowd. I would love to come visit someday. Futurist Thomas Frey
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Klaus Holzapfel</a>

    Well Thomas, you're right on. The big box stores have created a vacuum that needs and will be filled. The small little detail that many people in that space tend to overlook are the underlying financials though. It will take quite a bit of innovation and creativity to create clusters that can let their suppliers earn a living and can also compete with market rates. In order for this to gain traction we need the mainstream audience, not just an idealistic group that will pay premium for local services, local businesses, local food, etc... I just spent two days at the local food summit in Denver and could see quite a lack of consideration for that issue.
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Don Greenfield</a>

    I too really like the maker movement and the opportunities it offers talented people for self-employment. I would like to offer a cautious note before people quit their day job. The difficulty makers face when they try to do their craft as a business is in generating enough revenue to have the business make financial sense. For instance, in Denver, small real estate spaces lease on average for about $18.50 psf. Thus a 600 foot space would have a rental cost $11,100 annually or $925 a month. If it is a triple net lease they will also be responsible for taxes, insurance and upkeep which could easily total another couple hundred per month. The critical question becomes how many bracelets, loaves of bread or pictures do I have to sell per day to cover this nut, let alone all of the other ordinary business expenses such as utilities, phone service, advertising/marketing etc. If one objectively scrutinizes the financial performance requirements, many of these businesses cannot be financially successful. Unfortunately, too often they do the financial analysis after they are have already made the commitments to be in business and then it is too late.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Don and Klaus, You're absolutely right, being a great artist or craftsman does not make you a great entrepreneur. Rental costs are only a small piece of the equation. Finding products with enough consumer demand and profit margin can be very tricky. With the right support network, training, and coaching, many of these problems can be overcome. Maker Districts will need a number of screening and support processes in place to be successful. Futurist Thomas Frey
  4. Ken Martin

    While artisans have always enjoyed a niche market, the average consumer simply can't afford many of these "home-made" products. Take the example of a single mother of two; she simply doesn't have the time to chase down a local baker for a loaf of bread, and then drive across town to the local farmers market for a chicken. She will drive to the closest WalMart superstore, and buy everything she wants in one place; bread, milk, diapers and tennis shoes all at very affordable prices. This is the simple reason WalMart has been so successful in delivering products and services to the middle and lower class working families. As mentioned by Don above, just the cost of a store front alone is beyond most artisans' financial abilities and it is nearly impossible for them to remain in business selling one or two items a day. Our economy and urban settings are too complex and simply too far from these locations to make them a viable alternative. For the rich and upper middle class, paying $1,200 for a hand-made kitchen chair might be an option. But for the majority of American working families, they could buy an entire living room set for that price at bargain furniture stores. One place where I could see this working for both artisans and those interested in buying these products would be through Amazon if it created an online "Artisans Market" section. That would be one of the best places to establish an online presence where artisans could work out of their homes, shops or garages and provide products directly online. Thereby keeping direct overhead costs low and still being able to provide quality custom products to a larger market via the internet. Since Amazon allows for customer feeback on products purchsed through it's website, consumers can provide positive and negative responses which will eliminate poor products and promote better ones. Something not always possible in a "brick and mortar" store. I'm not promoting Amazon, but online shopping is not going away anytime soon and as less and less people are able to find meaningful work, artisan craftmanship may be the one last bastian of manufacturing left in this country that can't be automated or monopolized by mega corporations.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Hi Ken, You bring up some great points. Some of the trends that I didn't mention are that "maker" tools are becoming far more sophisticated, enabling them to work with far greater efficiency. To use your furniture example, a typical mass-produced wooden chair may sell for $100, but with the right tooling, a custom designed maker-built chair may only be $200-$250. Yes it's still more expensive, but still within reach of most middle class consumers. Taking this a few steps further, some of the next generation 3D printers will be able to "print" entire table and chair sets with very little labor costs. As you mentioned, each of the makers will need to extend their marketplace through an online presence. In addition to Amazon, sites like Etsy, Fab, Zibbet, ArtFire, and Bonanza all have easy ways of managing an online presence. Many consumers are getting tired of buying cheap imported goods that tend to break and have a very short useful life. In general, makers are proud of what they do. Nothing pleases them more than a happy customer. Futurist Thomas Frey
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>John Whitcomb</a>

    This is a very interesting phenomenon and article. I wonder if the trend will include "making energy" in the future. Makers Districts seem like ideal locations to demonstrate zero energy communities - using energy effciency, renewable energy and electric vehicle charging.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Paul M Bauer</a>

    Tom, My son reports that a new mall just opened up the road from them in Sarasota, FL. He was back here in Denver for a week in February and we visited the Source, among other places (Industry, Galvanize, Fluid Coffee Bar, etc., etc.) We picked one of the those rare spring days in early February, however.
  7. I am Doan

    Excellent timing! Thank you for sharing. This is a global 'issue' and waiting to be transformed in many opportunities. Added some of yours research that complement a similar project that I am going to present in my hometown. A great mix of retail and e-tail! I have one question to all of you reading this: What do you think of the concept of pop-up stores?
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Doan, Thanks for your comments. Portable businesses like food trucks and burrito bikes have the ability to move wherever the people are. Every softball game, parade, or political rally become an instant new markets for these businesses. Transportable businesses like pop-up shops have similar benefits but are slower to respond. They work good for event selling, short term store sales, and attention-getting marketing. Very likely someone will invent a fully portable pop-up shop that can be used anywhere (or they already have). But the cost of relocating and traveling long distances will become a considerable overhead expense. Futurist Thomas Frey
  8. Grant Whittle

    It doesn't take major brick and mortar overhead to initiate traffic into a "Maker's District." Most Main Street programs successfully initiate a Farmer's Market to drive foot traffic one day a week. Use the same market pavilion for a Maker's market on another day of the week. As the traffic builds, expand the opening of the Maker's Market at the pavilion into a long weekend. As the foot traffic justifies, businesses will then begin to occupy the nearby vacant buildings. Build the foot traffic with a low overhead open air market, and then watch the storefronts fill back up.
  9. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ed Ryan</a>

    A group of us have been looking to acquire an industrial space in Denver for the development of prototypes as well as the other issues you have described. We have made some progress but have not yet found the right building for the right price in the right area. The goal would be a lease rate maximum of $12.00 psf to the clients along with a shared space program. Any thoughts as to the market for such a facility?
  10. Mike Harrision

    I think we need to be very careful about how we differentiate between a "maker" and an artisan or craftsman. Personally, I would have a difficult time accepting anything 3D printed as "artisan" or "hand made" and suspect most people would limit the term "hand made" or "hand crafted' some one who uses tools which can actually be hand-held such as screw driver, chisel, plane or hand drill. In my eyes, a "hand made" bowl can't be turned on a CNC lathe any more than "hand made" jewelry could be 3D printed. The whole idea of artisan craftsmanship means there are inherent skill required to "craft" these items from raw materials. These "makers" you refer to are clearly not artisans. As is still reflected in the German term "Meister" who, even today, is a person who has extensive theoretical knowledge and practical skills in his profession including bakers, mechanics, carpenters, etc. and is awarded the title "Meister" only after so many years of experience and final State exam. Therefore while someone could easily set up a CNC machine to mill a block of wood into a chair, I would never consider them an artisan or craftsman wood worker who carefully selects each piece of wood, forms each stave, rocker, leg and seat by hand, and then assembles the finished piece. Consider the difference between a Ferrari and Toyota Corrola; in order for a Ferrari to be considered hand built, it required a certain percentage of hands-on craftsmanship from hand stitching the leather seats (even if a sewing machine is used) to hand building the engines (even if the crank is machined and the pistons are forged). Unlike a Toyota Corolla which is 90% assembled by robots, with a few hours of "hand work" where robots simply don't have the dexterity to replace a human. Please, let's not get so far ahead of ourselves we over look the benefits of technology where it makes sense but preserve the real Meistercraft of woodworkers, glass makers, bakers, metal workers and other ancient skills once protected by the Guilds.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Mike, At CES I was shown a line of clothing that had designs 3D printed onto traditional fabric. They were beautiful. Whether it 3D printers, welders, or chainsaws, the tools used by artists vary widely. Having tattoos 3D printed onto a person's skin, or makeup 3D printed onto a lady's face, is no more unusual than using dynamite to blast away rock on Crazy Horse mountain. Creativity comes in thousands of different forms and very few people judge the process in determining the value of the final result. In a Makers District it may make sense to ban things that are distractingly noisy, or dangerous processes that use toxic chemicals to etch a surface, but artists need the latitude to be creative. Whether it's made by robots or an old guy with a chisel, my sense is that its far better to let the market decide if it's worthy of purchase. Futurist Thomas Frey
  11. Barbara Sayers

    Very interested in this subject matter. Could you include me in your future musings/insights? Would love to help facilitate such a wonderful resurgence of "maker" marketing.

Leave a Reply