Paducah residents eager to create regional innovation hub
The visionaries behind the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub, the inspiration for Paducah's project, paid a visit to Paducah Wednesday to help explain what exactly "this" is.

It quickly became clear that a regional "makerspace" like the one in Arkansas will go far beyond replacing Paducah's ATC.

It aims to allow "informal, creative collisions" among technology, industry, trade, the arts, and whatever else Paducah thinks up -- building bridges into lifelong passions, higher education and new and existing businesses.

"A makerspace is not simply a space that is full of tools," said Joel Gordon, AK Innovation Hub co-founder.

"It is not simply an art space. It is not simply an industry space. It is a space where people make opportunities for small businesses, individuals, anyone. It's having access to the tools and materials you need, whatever they are."

"We're an informal education facility," said Gordon's fellow co-founder, Warwick Sabin.

"We're not offering degrees or certificates or anything like that. We're giving that initial exposure, giving people the opportunity to try things, to fail, to get their hands on stuff and figure out what it is they like, what they might have a skill for, and then help them get connected to the things they need to further develop those talents."

Coming from North Little Rock, Arkansas, a town much like Paducah in both its charms and challenges -- Gordon and Sabin spoke to group after group Wednesday about what they've seen and learned since starting their Innovation Hub three years ago, and what it could do for Paducah.

From the Rotary Club luncheon to the Lower Town "meet and greet" to the special-called Paducah school board meeting in the evening, every stop along the AK duo's Paducah tour was packed with curious and excited community members.

As PPS's Monica Bilak put it at the start of the school board meeting, it's a project that "really hits everyone's hearts."

What seems to be the key to the Hub's magic, Gordon and Sabin said, is that it isn't just for students. It's for everyone.

Though cities like Paducah and North Little Rock may have a wealth of resources, those resources are often housed within institutions like schools or universities. For whatever reason, Gordon said, there seems to be an invisible fence around such places that turns people away.

"A lot of times having a facility that is in the community, that is a public resource, exactly the way you'd think of a public library so that there's not that level of intimidation. It creates a safe space for people to explore and fall down and get up and discover what they're passionate about," Gordon said.

"It's just about having that access to opportunity and discovering what you can fall in love with."

The AK Innovation Hub features K-12 programming and field trips during the school day, then opens the Hub to the community through minimal membership fees in the afternoons and evenings. The after-school programs bleed into the Hub's community time, giving people of all ages and background the chance to learn from one another.

Kids young and old can use the space and its resources to explore interests. Budding entrepreneurs can create prototypes to jump-start their businesses, seek advice and make connections. It's a space where students, community members and industry get to interact.

"If you look at everything you've got in this community, to me it's like a beautiful bunch of polished pearls," Gordon said. "The lack is the string to string them all together."

The Innovation Hub seems to be that string in Arkansas, he said. It could be that for Paducah, too.

"I see this hub as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes," Morgan Elementary Assistant Principal Chris Sheffer reflected at the end Wednesday's board meeting.

"Here, it's safe to fail, and you've got things to fall back on, the people and resources to help you learn from that mistake, whether it's a student or someone in the community that's just looking to better their life.

"As an educator, this excites me. As a member of Paducah-McCracken County, this excites me. And honestly, as a nerd, this really excites me."

To follow Paducah Innovation Hub's progress, visit facebook.com/paducahinnovation.
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