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Business Innovation Factory

Innovation Story Studio

Clay Rockefeller

Co-founder, The Steel Yard

Clay Rockefeller

Clay Rockefeller is living proof that innovation happens at intersections. Especially at odd intersections, like those found where architecture, social commentary, art and entrepreneurship converge. When one gets to know the 28 year-old activist/artist/entrepreneur, it seems fitting that he feels most at home in places where boundaries blur.

"I do a little of just about everything one does after co-founding and working for a start-up, non-profit organization," says Rockefeller. "But if you pressed me to identify the overarching activities I participate in on a daily basis, I would say imaginative brainstorming, problem solving, and semi-aimless wondering."

Rockefeller is unapologetic about this "wondering." And for good reason. It is his unique ability to explore the edges of what is possible that fuels his prodigious success and underlies his gift for marrying activism with diplomacy, art with business, and entrepreneurship with philanthropy.

In 2001, while pursuing a degree in American Civilization and Visual Art at Brown University, Rockefeller found himself at the center of a unique quandary. Providence, now several years into its nationally heralded renaissance, was experiencing a construction boom along the Woonasquatucket River, a corridor of mostly abandoned industrial buildings stretching west of the capital city’s downtown.

The development boom, an economic win for the city, came with a price. In one case, developers pursued plans that called for the demolition of a beloved, though somewhat dilapidated, mill complex, known as Eagle Square, which served as a haven for the city’s musicians and artists. The demolition, which eventually made way for a shopping center, raised the ire of many who worried about the cultural impact of a city development plan that seemed unconcerned about the need for affordable work/live space which had contributed centrally to the city’s reputation as an arts and cultural mecca.

This experience prompted many to ask if a plan that supports economic growth and progressive community development was even possible. Was there a business model to provide the local community with affordable space that took into account the real world constraints of a market where real estate is at a premium?

For Rockefeller, finding a workable answer was central to the health of the community. Teaming up with three fellow artists, Rockefeller launched The Monohasset Mill Project to drive the adaptive reuse of an historic mill complex for subsidized and market rate artist live/work condominiums. Poetically, the Monohasset Mill development sits across from Eagle Square, the new shopping center.

"The Monohasset Mill project represents a unique vision for the city's underused and vacant commercial and industrial buildings," explains Rockefeller. "The project set out to preserve Providence’s industrial mill buildings by creating measures of protection and financial incentives that promote the adaptive reuse of these historic buildings." In doing so, Rockefeller argues, "the project advances a broad spectrum of development goals, including those that support artists and small business. It also minimizes the potential downside of gentrification on existing communities."

The Monohasset Mill, which incorporated salvaged material and hardware and fixtures from many of Providence’s demolished industrial buildings into the design and construction of the project, is in itself a work of art that showcases the beauty—and utility—of adaptive reuse and architectural rehabilitation. Occupants of the building are selected with an eye towards creating a community built around affordable studios, office and live/work space.

Rockefeller is also a co-founder of The Steel Yard, a non-profit organization that provides arts and technical training programs that increase opportunities for cultural and artistic expression, career-oriented training, and small business incubation in a revitalized steel yard next door to the Monohasset property. Home to a 5,612 square foot industrial shop featuring a foundry, ceramics studio, blacksmithing shop, and welding shop, as well as studio space and outdoor work and exhibition space, the Steel Yard's programs cater to working artists, students, community members, trades-people, arts educators, and entrepreneurs.

Walking along the road that runs in front of both projects, the details of Rockefeller’s "wonderings" become more defined. The intersection of past and present is clear along the acreage where the back lot of the Steel Yard, dotted with the relics of Providence’s industrial history, abuts the cool, soho-style loft spaces of Monohasset Mill.

"When a vision is really big, you can’t be afraid to be wrong," says Rockefeller. "You just have to believe in what you’re doing and have a little faith that in the end, it will all make sense."