When Chris Williamson wanted to talk technology with fellow geeks in the past, he found that this city offered few options.
“I started doing robotics 10 or 12 years ago, and I ended up having to reach out across the country because I couldn’t find anybody else in the Augusta area who I could talk to,” said Williamson, a mechanist for Kenward Industries.
As time went on, he found a handful of miniature tech clubs with focuses ranging from software to woodworking – but there was no binding fiber, no sense of community among those who embrace the term “geek.”
The void inspired Williamson and a handful of other tech-savvy professionals to bring Augusta’s technology community to the forefront. In December, taking a cue from places such as Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, 10 founding members opened The Clubhou.se at 816 Broad St., a shared space where anyone can come to work on robots, Web sites, wood projects or just share ideas and get inspired.
“You can go to Starbucks and sit by yourself and try to get stuff done or have a downtown office where there might be four or five other people there who you can bounce ideas off of and try to get feedback,” Williamson said.
Inside The Clubhou.se, members can scribble ideas and formulas on a wall of whiteboards. The other side has a row of wooden work tables against a wall of exposed brick. Their conference room has a ping-pong table, and monthly meetings include beer.
With about 25 members to date, The Clubhou.se is made up of small business owners, architects, engineers, free-lancers and other professionals. Membership is $100 a month, $50 for students and military, which includes 24/7 access to the office space and entrance to any monthly meeting or get-together.
Co-founder Eric Parker, who spent years working as an architect in Silicon Valley, said membership dues cover the building’s rent and utilities. Anything left over is used for equipment or special projects. For instance, in March, The Clubhou.se funded and installed a Wi-Fi hotspot in the Harrisburg neighborhood to give residents free Internet access.
Parker said the dream is for The Clubhou.se to one day have a bigger workspace, where members can build anything from an iPhone app to a car.
It has potential to be a breeding ground for small businesses or a place to entice investors to support projects – which would make The Clubhou.se a true tech start-up.
“I think this area is going to make tremendous waves in the next five or 10 years,” Parker said. “Augusta is a tremendously motivated and organized community that really has spent the last half-century licking its chops waiting to do something. It’s now starting to develop its own swagger. I think Augusta is preparing to land itself.”
Mayor Deke Copenhaver acknowledged that the tech community in Augusta might feel disconnected on a social level, but he said The Clubhou.se is an example of how the tech industry is budding within the city.
Last year metro Augusta ranked second in the U.S. for growth of high tech jobs over five years, with an 81 percent increase in those positions between 2006 and 2011.
Copenhaver said Augusta’s low cost of living and its industries are continuing to attract high-end tech companies, just as Atlanta’s Rural Sourcing Inc. did in 2011.
“When you have young entrepreneurs putting together something like The Clubhou.se, it’s just capitalizing on the momentum going on in the tech sector,” Copenhaver said.
If nothing else, The Clubhou.se provides a welcoming space where “geeks can hang out with other geeks,” as Parker put it.
At the most recent Beers and Bytes monthly meeting, small talk consisted of how to find the diameter of a Pringles can and which program board is best installed in a robot.
In early April, the group held a sumobot competition, in which homemade robots with sensors tried to knock each other off a small platform.
It also now serves as an umbrella for the handful of smaller, unacquainted tech groups, such as Hack Augusta and CSRA Makers, that have existed for several years.
Clubhou.se member Grace Belangia said she sees it as a place to be around like-minded people who are aiming at launching their own businesses. As a working mother and owner of her own marketing firm, 3rd Degree Media, Belangia uses the shared space to meet with clients or to hang out and absorb creativity from friends.
Having grown up in Silicon Valley, she sees potential for Augusta to sprout more start-up tech companies. It will just take efforts similar to The Clubhou.se to put technology and creativity on a pedestal and lure larger industries and investors.
“I want to stop the brain drain,” Belangia said. “I have kids in high school now, and I want them to look at Augusta as an opportunity so they don’t have to go to another part of the country where they can find well paying, educated jobs. Or people here already … they can stay here and contribute to it as opposed to a transient thing. Augusta has come a long way in terms of art and culture, and it’s all kind of developing.”