The Steel Yard
The Steel Yard
The Providence Iron and Steel Company operated for 100 years on the banks of the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, Rhode Island. When it closed in 2001, a pair of recent college graduates looked at its long sheds and hulking gantry cranes and saw the perfect home for a community hub offering arts classes, job training…
Providence, Rhode Island
The Steel Yard, Rhode Island State Council on the Arts
Public Funding Includes
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Brownfields Cleanup Grants
Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management
Rhode Island Commerce (formerly Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation)
Rhode Island State Council on the Arts
The Providence Iron and Steel Company operated for 100 years on the banks of the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, Rhode Island. When it closed in 2001, a pair of recent college graduates looked at its long sheds and hulking gantry cranes and saw the perfect home for a community hub offering arts classes, job training in industrial arts like welding and an incubator for small manufacturing businesses. They purchased the site, created a nonprofit, The Steel Yard, and set about dealing with contamination left by a century of industrial use as a steel fabrication facility. “We were a young nonprofit that had promising programs, but a heavily contaminated asset,” said Howie Sneider, The Steel Yard’s executive director since 2013. “Foundations didn’t want to touch it. They wanted them to deal with the contamination first.”
The new nonprofit turned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), securing two Brownfield Cleanup Grants for $200,000 each. That commitment helped them raise additional funding from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (now Rhode Island Commerce), the state economic development agency, and private fundraising as matching funds. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management managed the EPA-funded portions of the project.
Obtaining funding wasn’t as easy as it sounds, however. Some of the agencies were perplexed, if not alarmed, by the innovative ways The Steel Yard wanted to clean up and reuse the site in the name of responsible environmental stewardship. Development Director Sally Turner explained, “Some of the retaining walls were (made from) materials we were reusing from the Boston Big Dig [in order to] reduce, reuse and recycle. It was very nontraditional, but we are very nontraditional.” The design also called for the contaminated soil to be capped and remain at the site rather than be carted elsewhere, which caused consternation.
The Steel Yard’s methods complied with the necessary regulations, but pushed the boundaries of what agencies considered normal practice. “In some ways as an arts organization, we were challenging expectations,” said Sneider. “We were solving problems as we encountered them, and we were also presenting them opportunities to use funds in ways they hadn’t considered. We were the first site to use permeable concrete, and the agencies were excited to support it, but were creating regulations as the project developed.” Turner agreed, “I think we’ve moved the needle. They still shake their heads at us and I hope they continue to. That’s what art is supposed to do.”
Despite those early misgivings, the project was a success, winning a national award for adaptive reuse. The state Department of Environmental Management has even approached The Steel Yard to apply for new rounds of funding. Sneider thinks this enthusiasm is due in part to The Steel Yard’s public narrative about its home as a formerly contaminated site, which may be helping change perceptions about what is possible on similar properties.
The Steel Yard‘s Public Projects department was founded in 2004, helping other agencies and organizations think about what is possible, taking on commissions for public art and street furniture in placemaking, economic revitalization and community building projects. Its first federally funded project was in 2012 with the town of Bristol, which received a Federal Highway Administration TIGER (now called BUILD) grant to refurbish the main road through town. The town wanted artistic street furniture to elevate the pedestrian experience along the road. It took Sneider “six months of red tape” to figure out how the town could use The Steel Yard as its supplier without running afoul of federal procurement requirements. “The contractor is long gone, but we have had a continued relationship with the town and added other work around town,” said Sneider. “It’s all about relationship building that goes beyond the federal grant.”
Having had a taste of the complexity of managing federal funding, The Steel Yard made a strategic decision to partner with other organizations to access federal funding as a subrecipient of grants rather than to pursue funding directly. “It is a daunting amount of work to consider managing federal grants, let alone the work required to try to get them,” explained Sneider. With a staff of 10, The Steel Yard does not have the capacity that federal funding requires, nor does the organization want to play a leadership role in most projects, preferring to serve in a creative and community organizing capacity.
The Steel Yard has sometimes approached other organizations to partner when a promising opportunity comes up. But it is more typical for others to make the approach and ask The Steel Yard to work with them. Sneider chalks up this appeal to The Steel Yard’s unique place in the arts world, its track record of innovative and creative work, and its practice of paying artists for their work. He actively encourages people to approach The Steel Yard with their ideas. He and his staff help partners identify funding sources and write applications, “but if we’re working with the City of Providence, the city should probably be applying for that funding, not us. They have the capacity.”
The key element in success, he said, is to value your perspective and charge for it. “Don’t let the cities or towns tell you there’s no budget for art in the project and you can’t be paid for it. Help them find the funding, but make sure that you value the creative contribution and don’t give it all away.”