Shane Harms
Steve Howell of Ballard Forge stand with his metal working the tools, many of which he construction himself. Howell is looking for a new shop space in Tacoma or South Park.

Fenpro shop occupants moving out as new museum moves in

The swift confluence of change in Ballard is an ongoing shifting in ideas, people, space and culture. Amid the flux there is a game of chairs being played. Buildings are changing hands as the demand for a seat at the table intensifies. Indeed, in this game of chairs for property, long time community members are unwillingly forced into claiming a space to call their own and by the nature of the game someone will be out.

It’s such the case with the Nordic Heritage Museum’s acquisition of Fenpro: a studio and shop space located between 26th Avenue NW and 28th Avenue NW on NW Market Street. The once WWII munitions manufacturing site now studio space will be the new home for the museum and will provide a much needed building for them to showcase and celebrate the heritage of the Scandinavia boat builders and artisans that built Ballard over 150 years ago.

“There has been a lot of change in Ballard over the years, and we are really happy to be a cultural anchor for our Nordic heritage in Ballard,” said Jan Woldseth Colbrese, Deputy Director of External Affairs at NHM.

The museum operates out of a building at 3014 NW 67th St., and the building is owned by Seattle Public Schools. To make room for the growing need for another school in Ballard, SPS has asked the museum to find another location. Their lease expired last month, but the City has offered a no more than two-year lease renegotiation. NHM anticipated the City’s actions years ago, and after much debate they acquired Fenpro, purchasing it in segments in 2003 through 2009.

“There was an active debate on where to move the museum, and there were different parts of the city considered, but the board thought it was best to stay in Ballard because of its heritage and a wonderful opportunity to continue the legacy with the new building.”

NHM is in the permitting and design phase of the $44.5 million project and expect to break ground in the spring of 2016 and be open to the public by the first quarter of 2018. However, the museum still needs to raise $14 million for the project. The museum has been doing a silent campaign to raise money and plan to open the campaign to the public in 2016 after breaking ground at the new site. They also received a Heritage Capital Grant from the State.

Bridge builders, machinists, glass blowers, woodworkers and artists have set up shop at Fenpro. The site is home to at least 20 artisans, business owners and artists. They have all been given a notice to be out by March. Many of them report that Fenpro is one of the last places in Ballard to offer warehouse studio space at a reasonable cost. Now they are looking for spaces of the same character in South Park, Tacoma or Everett.

Woldseth Colbrese said she sympathizes with the artists and artisans, and understands the frustration of having to move.

“We have made every effort to give the property managers notice of our plans. We understand what it’s like to have the threat of not having a home; we are in the same seat with the Seattle Public Schools,” said Woldseth Colbrese.

Jay Craig used to have a shop at Fenpro and remains friends with artists in the building. He said he supports the museum, but at the same time he’s afraid that all the occupants will be displaced only to have the museum not follow through with the project because they have not yet reached their funding goal.

“It (Fenpro) really has a cool history to it and now it’s full of businesses and artists, and it’s all going to be gone. … Its still very much speculation whether or not the project will happen. It would be a shame for the building to be torn down and then just sit vacant and then eventually a big box store like Costco buys it,” said Craig.

Ken Gilman is one of the owners of Seattle Bridge, a bridge and structure building firm operating out of Fenpro. The day the Ballard News-Tribune stopped by Gilman was working on a metal structure for a large treehouse project. Gilman said they have been looking at new locations South Park and White Center.

Ken Gilman of Seattle Bridge looking over a structure that will one day be used in a treehouse. Seattle Bridge has until March to vacate their space at Fenpro.

“There are spaces out there, but I’ve found that there are a lot of people out there looking for a space right now,” said Gilman.

Gilman said that his business is growing, but moving all his equipment and tools once he finds a new location will be tough balance and a detriment to the company.

Steve Howell is owner of Ballard Forge, a black smith and ironwork shop at Fenpro. In his shop there are hammers and other tools that he made himself. He was recently on the History Channel for recreating the rivets of the Titanic. Howell said he also does other craft work and pointed out a bin full of iron bottle openers.

“This sort of stuff is going to be in people’s pockets in 50 to 100 years. That’s why I do metal. It’s got a permanence,” said Howell.

On top of craftwork, Howell does a lot of work for fishing vessels that moor across the street, and with ships coming and going Howell makes himself available for the work.

Howell lives on Phinney Ridge and going to work everyday means a quick ride down to his shop. He said he gave up a job and a commute on the eastside to start his business in Ballard. Now he’s looking at Tacoma and White Center as potential sites for his business and dreads the idea of another commute. He said that preparing for the move has been frustrating and stressful.

“It’s ironic they’re having a museum to honor the things that are currently going on here.”

“There’s not places like this anymore where you can get affordable shop space and it’s such a shame to see it happen. Ballard is definitely changing, but I think this change will be a big one because there is not another place like this where you have so many different businesses that are just going to get knocked out at once. I think it would be a huge loss for Ballard,” said Craig.

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