On Sunday, a crowd will visit a long-neglected but reborn section of downtown Omaha, and the reason is a new concentration of commerce.
Some 8,000 people — many of them first-time visitors — are expected to shop and play their way through an area designated as Omaha’s North Makerhood District, just north of TD Ameritrade Park.
The event is HutchFest, an annual outdoor trade fair featuring handmade goods that runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. HutchFest’s move this year to the developing Makerhood helps highlight the area’s permanent collection of people who are turning their personal skills into businesses.
“Everyone who has a studio is running it as a business,” said Ben Petersen, owner of the TimberSmith wood furniture company and manager of the Bench, a yellow industrial building at 11th and Seward Streets with studios for 33 of those makers. “Well over half of them are doing this as their full-time gig.”
HutchFest will be held along a half-mile of streets, blocked off for the occasion, and repurposed buildings between 13th and Nicholas Streets and 11th and Grace Streets. There will be open houses at the Bench and the nearby Hot Shops, Omaha Heartland Bicycle, the Fashion Institute Midwest, Reclaimed Enterprises, Wood Chaser and Metropolitan Community College.
Their buildings will be surrounded by 250 HutchFest vendors from all over the Midwest, along with live music, games, food trucks and other attractions.
“People will come in here to see my studio and my process,” said Joy O’Conner, who makes jewelry, dinnerware and other clay products under the Earthen Joy Ceramics name. She just moved into a larger studio in the Bench.
Just across the way, Andrea Stein applied oil paint to a dramatic canvas for a restaurant to be located at the Blackstone, just across downtown. “I’m mainly commission-based,” Stein said. “I do custom paintings for homes, businesses, that sort of thing.”
Clients find her by word of mouth, and she has talked with O’Conner about doing some painting on ceramic slabs. That’s one of the advantages of moving out of your home studio to a location with other creative people: Collaborating and sharing ideas can help everyone.
One of the Bench’s furniture makers, for example, used Stein artwork for online advertising of his products. One of the HutchFest vendors, Wax Buffalo’s Alixia Reisinger of Lincoln, has been pouring wax for candles into O’Conner’s ceramic containers, making a product created by both of them.
Matthew Shrader, a glass artist who works out of Ed Fennell’s Crystal Forge studio at Hot Shops, said that even though the outdoor vendors may be the big attraction, people should try the open houses, too.
“We’re a big building full of art,” he said. “There’s a lot more buzz going on.”
Although he also has a full-time non-artistic job — health insurance is expensive — he also would like to expand his glass work. “I would love to continue and to branch out and do more things.”
Some of the artists who work in the area just want to focus on their work and aren’t interested in making money, he said. “Everybody has their own drive. I like to do both.”
Jewelry maker Heather Kita said she has been making jewelry for 20 years, the past three years independently at the Bench. “This is for my own business now, and I don’t have to share,” she said.
HutchFest previously took place at Turner Park and the MidAmerica Center in Council Bluffs. Mark Huff, co-owner of the Hutch home store in Midtown Crossing, which sponsors the event, said the Makerhood’s existing businesses make it a logical location.
“It’s an area of town where there’s a lot of makers already,” Huff said. “We figured, why don’t we bring all the other vendors where they are?”
The location has customer appeal, too, he said, well worth the admission price of $5 online and $6 in person.
“It’s an area that I think a lot of Omaha people should see,” he said. “It’s very historic. It’s really fun to be able to activate a historic district in Omaha where people don’t typically have the experience of walking the streets.”
Sunday’s crowd also will be a tribute to the pioneering artists and artisans who started populating the area about 15 years ago and who, with the help of some Omaha philanthropists, have reclaimed an area where buildings were not only vacant but often abandoned altogether.
Lyn Ziegenbein, former executive director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation, said the foundation and other philanthropists bought up the property along 11th Street through a nonprofit group, Future Forward LLC, starting 10 years ago with the goal of making the former industrial zone into a Makerhood District.
Along with other industrial buildings and land nearby, it’s a huge property with equally vast potential, she said, based on what has happened to similar areas in some other cities.
By developing property north of Cuming Street, she said, the group wants to revitalize that section of downtown, rather than having it serve as a barrier to growth on additional land farther to the north.
“It was a ghost town,” Ziegenbein said. “Now the vitality down here is really exciting. This could lead to some job creation.”
Rents are affordable, she said, since the artistic entrepreneurs usually start out small. Metro Community College teaches “lost arts” — custom upholstery, printing, textiles, woodworking and other skills. Those classes generally are packed, she said.
“The whole area has been activated,” she said.
Huff, from the Hutch store, said the Makerhood location is so logical that HutchFest might have found a permanent home. “We’d love to keep hosting our event in the same area. We realize the value in cultivating the Makerhood down there.”