What 78th Street Studios did for art in CLE, Hamilton Collaborative is doing for innovation

When Rust Belt Riders co-founder Michael Robinson describes the organization's approach, he points to the systems thinking philosophy of author and environmental scientist Donella Meadows.

“We believe in harnessing the power of our community's emergent properties, that our community's potential is greater than the sum of its individual actors,” says Robinson of Rust Belt Riders, the cutting-edge composting company that saves food waste from landfills to use as agricultural material. “In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

<span class="content-image-text">Michael Robinson of Rust Belt Riders:</span>Michael Robinson of Rust Belt Riders:

That's exactly the philosophy behind the Hamilton Collaborative—a group of about six anchor organizations alongside some smaller, incubating businesses, all working together to fuel innovation in Cleveland. Think makers, entrepreneurs, thinkers, tradespeople, but most of all, collaborators that are each bringing to the table their own skills and crafts to help each other succeed.

“There’s just something about being in a creative space with [everyone] within arm’s reach,” says Jessica Davis, founder of Rebuilders Xchange (RBX), an enormous space filled with both unique and mainstream construction materials. “Once you become familiar with one of the businesses, you get closer to what’s going on with the other businesses.”

Along with Rust Belt Riders and RBX, some of the original companies within the Hamilton Collaborative include SoulCraft Cleveland, Ingenuity Cleveland, Skidmark Garage, Architecture Office, 3 Barn Doors, and MorrisonDance, with another handful of smaller businesses and incubator companies also housed in the 350,000-square-foot complex. And possibilities loom—the building is only about half occupied right now, says Ingenuity’s artistic director Emily Applebaum.

But the word is spreading: Hamilton Collaborative held its first-ever "Happening at the Ham" on Small Business Saturday, allowing visitors to explore the various businesses and get a taste of what they have to offer. 

As Skidmark Garage's Brian Schaffran sees it, it's all part of the momentum he's felt since day one. “The collective that has grown here has taken on a life of its own," says Schaffran. "I don’t think I’d still be in business if I were on my own in the building by myself.”

Finding its spark

Hamilton Collaborative got its initial spark three years ago when Davis joined forces with Peter Debelak—founder of hands-on woodworking shop SoulCraft Cleveland—to find a space in which they could work together. They found their spot of choice in the 1903 Osborn Manufacturing building, located at 5401 Hamilton Ave. in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood and once home to the largest industrial brush manufacturer in the world.

“We had all been collaborating with each other in different ways,” recalls Debelak. “Once we found the building, it kickstarted [Hamilton Collaborative].”

Around the same time, Ingenuity Cleveland was also looking for a new, permanent home. “IngenuityFest in 2015 was our last year on the lakefront, and we had horrendous weather—it was Hurricane Joaquin, 45 degrees and raining sideways,” Applebaum recalls. “Ingenuity was deeply invested in reorganizing into being a year-round entity. The idea was to expand the festival to year-round and have a permanent location and permanent footprint.”

By 2016, the forces came together, and the collaborative started to form. Skidmark's Schaffran got in touch with a commercial real estate agent, who knew the perfect place and believed that its landlords, Terry Keenan and Doug Krause of Hamilton Marquette, would work with the group’s vision.

“The landlords [had been] holding out for one big manufacturer,” says Schaffran. “They were really kind and gave us good rents, knowing we were all startups.”

Taking shape

The various organizations started moving in by mid-2016. In September 2016, the 12th annual IngenuityFest was the first official program to be held in the Hamilton Collaborative. Two years later, the business owners say they can’t imagine operating without the support they find in the building.

“It’s not just a collaboration—it’s programming, it’s the clientele,” says Debelak. “As an entire group we have events. We work as individuals, as pairs, or triples here. There are lots of different types of collaboration.”

Architecture Office founder Adam Rosekelly was also among the first drawn to the space—known for creating innovative spaces himself with projects such as the renovation of LBM bar in Lakewood and his use of a diamond-shaped ceiling grid of color-changing LED lights. It is his contemporary approach that makes Rosekelly feel at home in at the collaborative.

“If anything, we’re the ones least associated with making,” he says. “But I think we fit in pretty well.”

MorrisonDance was also one of those early tenants. A cross-disciplinary dance company that attempts to push boundaries in terms of movement and dance, MorrisonDance moved into Hamilton Collaborative two years ago.

Founder Sarah Morrison says Applebaum showed her around, and she immediately fell in love with a section in an area that wasn’t being leased yet, had no heat, and no running water. “Honestly, most buildings aren’t very conducive to dancing because you need a safe space to dance in,” says Morrison, who started the company in 1997. “All of the sudden, we went into this one room and my jaw was on the floor.”

MorrisonDance settled in well, and the company is now a member of SoulCraft—using the membership for set building—and Morrison also uses RBX to find good props.

“What I like about Hamilton Collaborative all of the organizations are different,” she says. “I think of it as interdisciplinary sometimes, so it’s great to be here for each other, rather than with others doing the same thing.”

Meeting their match

Calling RBX “50,000 square feet of matchmaking” for her seemingly endless array of merchandise, Davis thinks Hamilton Collaborative is the perfect location for RBX—not only for its cooperative resources, but its proximity to events like the Cleveland Flea. Since RBX is open to the public four days a week (Wednesday through Saturday), customers can browse a constantly-changing selection of more than 200 new inventory items in her expansive showroom.

Davis carries everything from vintage and brand-new cabinets to gazebos, doorknobs, and barn doors. “It is the salvage place in Cleveland open to the public,” she says. Though she has a hard time choosing a favorite item in her shop, current contenders range from a functioning birdcage elevator to a hand-carved vintage carousel horse head to a 1920s corner soaker tub.

<span class="content-image-text">Rebuilders Xchange</span>Rebuilders Xchange

Davis organizes everything she has on hand, and everything has a price tag. Half of the profits go back to the person who brought the item in to RBX. “It’s really a resource for people to make a profit, rather than sending it to a landfill or donating it,” she says.

While Davis describes RBX’s wares as a matchmaking service, the same holds true for the businesses housed in the Hamilton Collaborative in that they all help each other out.

“We started to call it a collaborative, but it’s more of a family that shares resources,” she says.

For instance, Robinson says Davis has been known to come by Rust Belt Riders to borrow their Bobcat, or Morrison will duck into SoulCraft to borrow a screwdriver. She has also been using Ingenuity’s climbing wall to experiment with what she calls Movement Vocabulary. “It’s very different than walking on the floor,” she says of experimenting with dance on walls. 

But the shared resources go beyond tools and material items, the group says. It’s also about support and brainstorming among a creative group of entrepreneurs. “Being in close proximity to other young businesses, we can get together and share some of the problems we face,” explains Robinson. “And, at the end of the day, you can go down to Skidmark and play a game of pool.”

Paving the way

With Hamilton Collaborative gaining momentum, members like Ingenuity are now harnessing that strength to help future collaborators join the fold. The Ingenuity Labs Incubator Program houses about 15 new companies, or “creative entrepreneurs.” So far, the Incubator has hatched a few companies into their own spaces within the Collaborative. “The type of people we incubate here have really neat businesses, but it would probably be more difficult for them to go into a traditional incubator,” says Applebaum.

Ingenuity’s Ignite! Speaker series is designed to address the needs of those creative entrepreneurs. “It celebrates everything special about the building,” says Applebaum. The last 2018 talks, Getting Situated and Getting Funding and Finding a Location and a Neighborhood will be on Wednesday, December 12, at 6 p.m.

Organizations have teamed up to work on outside projects as well—expanding the reach of Hamilton Collaborative. SoulCraft and Rust Belt Riders regularly work with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District on various projects. Robinson is working with high school students to build worm farm composters, as well as Excel spreadsheets to track the worms’ reproduction and need for more space. Debelak teamed up with Robinson to build recycling and compost containers for IngenuityFest’s zero waste mission. Robinson and Debelak are also working on composting bags for sawdust—something SoulCraft creates a lot of.

“When you have all these groups working together, there’s some kind of multiplier there,” says Robinson. “It’s something I’m reminded of every day when I’m working here.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.