If history has taught humanity anything, it’s that innovation is continually progressing. From the discovery of fire to electricity, an idea is always brewing in someone’s mind. For the modern-day inventors, entrepreneurs and creative thinkers in Arkansas, there’s a place solely dedicated to helping ideas become realities. Welcome to the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub.
Opened in 2014, the local makerspace is a direct product of North Little Rock’s downtown Argenta Arts District, where it is located. Errin Stanger, the recently named director of the Innovation Hub, has been around since the birth of both. Stanger believes the Arts District and the Innovation Hub are so closely intertwined that one story cannot be told without the other.
“John Gaudin is a gentleman who moved here from New Orleans, and his goal when he moved into the area was to make Argenta a walkable, livable, beautiful community. That’s just what he’s done,” Stanger said. “[Gaudin] created a large team of individuals, business owners, volunteers and community members from all over to help with his master plan for the neighborhood. I had a chance to be a part of that team.”
Through the planning of the neighborhood and how to incorporate the charm of the historic buildings with the atmosphere the team was wanting to create, the idea for the Innovation Hub came about.
“Of course, the Arts District was the focus for bringing in galleries and artists for a beautiful, creative vibe in Argenta, and we wanted to be inclusive and attract as many different people as we could. There was this building that we looked at and asked, ‘How could this building be used to be a place of creativity and inspiration; a place for entrepreneurship for young and old in the neighborhood?’ So, we came up with the Innovation Hub,” she said.
The Gaudin team traveled around the country visiting different makerspaces to gather ideas on what it wanted Argenta’s makerspace to be. After visiting numerous organizations, each focusing on a different craft or business, the consensus was that the Innovation Hub needed to be a place for all ideas.
“The idea was hatched that the Innovation Hub could do it all. Let’s throw it all in there and see how this works for our community because, really, we need all ideas to grow and thrive in not only downtown North Little Rock, but in the state of Arkansas. This would be the first of its kind in the state,” Stanger explained. “I was so excited to be a part of those beginning efforts because it really married several things that I am passionate about. Community building, creative spaces and providing a place where people feel welcome to come in and use our resources, create their own businesses or jump into a hobby.”
The Innovation Hub offers classes on learning new skills, different workshops for all ages, after-school classes and field trips for students, as well as private instruction and special programs for aspiring entrepreneurs and people looking for job opportunities.
“Our ‘Skills to Launch’ program is kind of a new initiative,” Stanger said. “It is basically a pre-apprenticeship program that’s 10 weeks long. Students who are accepted into the program, ages 18 and up, get a chance to jump in and pick between a track of welding, HVAC, industrial maintenance and many more trades. Of course, the program is free for them, and they also get an OSHA certification and soft-skills training. The neat thing is that we have employers lined up, so at the end of their training, they have the availability to take their new skills and go on these interviews to hopefully receive a job.”
Winrock International, the Little Rock-based nonprofit that has become a global leader in business development, recently joined forces with the Innovation Hub. It announced Stanger’s appointment as Hub director in December.
“I think that 2022 is going to be a dynamic year,” Stanger said. “We are welcoming home Winrock International, and our entire building is becoming the headquarters for Winrock. We’re going to see some remodeling happen within the building to accommodate some new office spaces for our Winrock team.”
More updates are coming to the Innovation Hub in the form of new opportunities for the community.
“We’re also going to see the creation of the first Best Buy Teen Tech Center in Arkansas, and that is going to be a free program for high school students after school and on the weekends, with Best Buy providing state-of-the-art technology,” Stanger said.
Regarding new interest areas, Stanger said the Innovation Hub has always wanted to include music, and 2022 could see that dream come into fruition.
“It’s art right now that’s not represented, but in 2022, it will be,” she said. “We’re looking to create a digital recording studio and teach children how to make music and think about ideas around music and technology. Currently, [the community] doesn’t have anything that exists outside of the school system. Some schools have podcasting rooms or they have different recording rooms available for students to use, but this is going to be special because it’ll be free.
“A lot of changes are coming. I think our community will see that we’re going to be able to continue to provide the excellent programming that we offer, but then we’ll have some new stuff available as well, which will be of more benefit to the community.”
Stanger has been involved in nonprofit development for more than 20 years, and during that time, she has witnessed countless success stories.
“We recently graduated the third class of our ‘Skills to Launch’ student cohorts. Our cohorts are around 20 students each time, and we have a 79 percent job placement rate, which is of course a dream come true,” Stanger said. “Three students spoke at our latest graduation, and one said, ‘The Innovation Hub and Ms. Mary [staff member] has just changed my life. You have seen me at my worst, and you have pulled me out of a pit and led me onto a pathway to a career.’ That was an emotional moment for me because we did that. We, as a team, helped someone get on their pathway to their career.
“Being in the profession that I’m in and in this beautiful nonprofit, I get to see people find their confidence and faith in a career pathway or even just their confidence in learning a new hobby. I love that ‘aha’ moment people have when they learn something new and realize they could really enjoy doing it.”
More opportunities are on the horizon at the Innovation Hub. No matter the age, resources are available for anyone interested in honing new skills or joining the workforce.
“I want to encourage our community to come and visit us at the Innovation Hub so people can see this beautiful building filled with friendly staff and all the amazing tools, resources and equipment we have to offer,” Stanger said. “I’m so excited for how far we’ve come in just seven years, but I think what is ahead of us is a new chapter for the Innovation Hub that will be even better.”