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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Downtown library to host innovation hub

TAMPA — The name “Community Innovation Center” doesn’t really do justice to the new learning-working-creating space that’s coming to the John F. Germany Library downtown.

The new center, a partnership between Hillsborough County and the nonprofit organization Learning is for Everyone, will cover 10,000 square feet on the third floor of the library. An array of workshops and laboratories will cater to students, hobbyists, entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and tradespeople who want to learn new skills, sharpen old ones, or create the next new or improved product or service.

“The idea is to make (the center) part of the underlying culture of our community, that there is a place where continual learning goes on and for all ages,” said Irv Cohen, chairman of the Learning is for Everyone board.

Cohen said the idea for the Innovation Center came out of many discussions at the nonprofit organization about interactive learning for kids as well as a desire to help small companies and entrepreneurs.

Cohen contacted county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has taken a leading role in advocating for the county’s emerging community of high-tech entrepreneurs. Sharpe said he also had been thinking about a county innovation center, but his concept was limited to improving government services.

“My initial concept was boring,” the commissioner said. “They’re putting something together I hope we can replicate across the county and region.”

It was County Administrator Mike Merrill who suggested using the third floor of the library for the center. Merrill said it fit perfectly with his vision of libraries as centers of collaboration and invention.

“That’s what libraries of the future are going to be,” Merrill said. “They’re going to be an environment where folks can get together, share ideas and take advantage of digital resources. That was really the concept that they’re trying to achieve.”

Merrill connected Cohen with Joe Stines, the county’s director of Library Services. Stines has overseen the transformation of county libraries from book depositories to interactive learning centers where patrons can do anything from take online GED classes to get help with their income taxes or listen to lectures on early 20th century Tampa.

“A lot of programs we have fit very well into (Stines’) view of what the library of the future needs to look at,” Cohen said. “This was a very good melding of two organizations with like interests.”

Stines could not be reached for comment.

The county commission will vote Wednesday on a contract with Learning is for Everyone that will pay the non-profit $10,000 a year to train staff for the center. The brunt of the center’s equipment and operations costs will be covered by grants and a host of private companies and not-for-profit organizations, Cohen and Sharpe said.

“This is reflective of what’s starting to happen in our community,” Sharpe said. “No one person or group owns it; it’s community owned.”

The center will be divided into eight distinct-but-flexible work spaces: a TechMasters center, robotics test lab, hands-on workshop, machine shop, recording studio and media lab, arts center, entrepreneurship center and computer lab.

TechMasters will serve as both an information starting point for the center and a place where techies can get professional help. TechMaster meet-ups will be either regularly scheduled meetings or open question-and-answer sessions.

The hands-on work center will allow patrons to do small-to-medium-sized projects. The shop will include power strips, access to a compressor, soldering irons, oscilloscopes, multimeters, calipers and other measuring tools.

The machine shop will accommodate larger machinery such as a welder and drill press.

Cohen envisions a learning center that will serve all ages and demographics. Proposed classes include Powder Puff Mechanics, a home repair class for women; film making; urban bike repair; hobby electronics; and magazine and book publishing.

“We think it’s going to help revitalize the library and learning downtown,” Cohen said. “As Joe (Stines) says, as we get more successful with the program, we’ll roll it out to the other libraries.”


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