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This article article appeared originally in the February 2016 edition of Workspace Magazine, published by Bellow Press in Grand Rapids.

 

Detroit Business Incubator Reinvents How Detroit Works

By John Q. Horn

Grand-scale manufacturing loss, staggering crime and a national economic recession sank of a lot of middle-tier cities. Detroit, for decades, was one of them.

But, an invigorating entrepreneurialism – even in small pockets on the fringes of a now-bustling downtown – is creating an innovative approach to work where the automotive assembly line that made Detroit great is being complemented by a steady line of small business owners intending to make the city greater.

When Detroit needed to rethink how it approached work – following an auto industry collapse, a federal government bailout that came with it; and a corrupt city government leading to bankruptcy and emergency management assistance – reinventing Detroit’s work identity unraveled unconventionally.

Billionaires like the late Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Mike Illich, and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske and others, have been moving people and companies toward the Central Business District by the tens of thousands into buildings that were for decades empty, aging, eyesores. This has generated a downtown pulse that once barely registered.

Equally critical to the city’s health are the entrepreneurs and small business creationists filling the gaps of a city’s workforce and its path to becoming again whole. With countless manufacturing jobs disintegrating in both the city and suburbs, Detroit required a solution outside of the billionaires. Ponyride, a collaborative bricks-and-mortar workspace, galloped onto the landscape, bringing with it a zephyr of small business generation and community-based entrepreneurship.

 

ponyride exeterior

Back in 2005, Phil Cooley bought real estate along a then-empty and silent Michigan Avenue, inserting in it what would become the city’s signature restaurant, Slow’s Bar BQ. Through that success, Cooley and his associates would make more investments in Detroit. In 2010, the foreclosed property at 1401 Vermont caught his eye, as Cooley said he sought space to live and work. At 30,000 square feet, the bank said it would take $100,000 for the property. But for that sweet price, Cooley would need to convert it into a multiple-use space. He met with community members for feedback. The result is the rebirth of an empty structure, named Ponyride, packed with a litany of small businesses that all got their start or grew there.

“We want a workspace that encourages people the way Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were, before they were successful, old and rich,” Cooley said. “Small businesses and entrepreneurs need to exist and create jobs. “

And that’s precisely what is happening. Kate Bordine Cooley, Phil’s wife and owner of Our/Detroit, a vodka distillery and tasting room merely blocks away, said they let the community tell them what the space should be and “organically folks showed up needing space. Bit by bit, the spaces in Ponyride have grown into what they are now. We have a café, co-working space, textiles, metal and wood studios.”

 

weld1

Specifically, there are dozens of work areas carved out for small business entrepreneurs to create and distribute wares. Among them is a professionally built dance space, a recording studio, a coffee café, the makers of Beard Balm, Detroit Denim (and their $250 jeans), Dirt Apparel (urban-influenced clothing), The Line Studio and their glorious furniture with concrete countertops and Floyd, a progressive furniture manufacturer catering to smaller living spaces with pieces that attach to any surface to convert to a table-bed system.

“It’s a Democratic space,” Cooley said. “Why should tech be with just tech? Or manufacturing with just manufacturing? We don’t want to isolate people. It’s not textbook to have a quiltmaker next to a hip-hop dance teacher.”

Nothing about Detroit is, or ever will be, textbook. It’s always been tough in this city.

Detroit went from hey-day vibrant, to grossly violent, to complacently desolate, to laughably corrupt, to, literally, bankrupt. This pattern required five-plus decades of sweetheart deals and immoral bookkeeping. All while the rest of the nation watched, contorting its nose as if amid flatulence. It would seem logical that the decades it took for Detroit to de-evolve should be congruent to the time it will take for the city to again feel whole – a state many considered incomprehensible.

“To throw away that infrastructure is foolish. But, also, it’s the tenants themselves, the way they share resources, tools and ideas,” Cooley said. “Lazlo (a company housed in Ponyride) has a guy working for him who just got out of prison.”

Bordine Cooley supported the assertion that co-working, especially at Ponyride, crystallizes the way new work is being done in Detroit.

“When the Jit Crew said they needed a dance studio, we gutted a room that was once eight separate offices and laid down a reclaimed gymnasium floor,” she said.

Dance studio space cost $10 per hour to rent, and includes lessons, recitals, events and parties. Most workspace is $300 per month. The waiting list is currently at 200 people with great ideas. Ponyride quickly went from incubator to white-hot oven.

Ponyride is home to The Empowerment Plan, an organic operation bringing together homeless women and puts them to work. Their finished product is a thick, down jacket that converts to a sleeping bag, designed specifically for those living on the streets. The hum of 20 sewing machines at a time is nearly symphonic, once the humanitarianism of it all washes over you.

 

sewing 1

Cassie Coravos, business and communications manager of The Empowerment Plan, says the organization provides twice-weekly GED classes through Pro-Literacy Detroit. It assists with online college courses, finding viable housing and involving members with financial literacy through Level One Bank. It offers resources and support, including everything from onsite temporary housing to vehicle acquisition and repair.

“Ponyride has been a great space to be a part of,” Coravos said. “We love being part of this community, but we are quickly outgrowing our space. We currently have 20 seamstresses. We want to hire more and make more coats, and we are near capacity in our current space.”

Detroit SOUP also operates out of Ponyride. It’s not so much a café, rather, an open-air forum where guests enjoy locally sources soup and salad, paying $5 for both comfort food and a vote, listening intently to at least four locals pitch their products and ideas. These range from urban farming, to legal fees for the wrongly accused, to education and technology initiatives – many born from bare-bones, grassroots projects.

People eat, listen, vote and reward. The five-year-old program has raised more than $85,000 for independent projects in Detroit. It’s a council of community-minded Detroiters and their suburban neighbors putting up $5 at a time to help fund an entrepreneur’s dream. Yeah, someone has an idea for a garden on a beat-down lot and that night’s Detroit SOUP brought in $400 for the endeavor. That’s $400 that wasn’t there before. And like the business incubator space that also wasn’t there, so is a presence of support that didn’t previously exists. Be it $10 or $100,000, in Detroit, in the right hands, it makes a difference.

Joanna Dueweke is a community activist and content strategist. She is also the director of Detroit SOUP, and she describes perfectly the position in which Detroit, and its work culture, finds today.

“Nothing about Detroit can be traditional anymore,” she said. “We have to change so the city can change and prosper in new and different ways.”

New and different should be on the welcome mat.

Like The Empowerment Plan, whose founder Veronika Scott started by herself with a modest Detroit SOUP grant, the path to crafting a dream where soon-to-be-former-Detroit women could make a warm coat-sleeping bag for their sweet brethren and sisterhood, these things take time.

Creating coworking space and connecting with a community to make it feasible is embryonic in the larger glimpse. Putting the right resources in a place like Ponyride sharpens the focus for those who want it.

“Three and a half years ago, it was just Veronika,” Phil Cooley said. “Now look at it. That’s five years. That takes some heavy lifting. I hope there is more patience.”

 

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Saving money to buy a home can be daunting and off-putting, to the point where one thinks, “screw it, it’s easier just to stay in this apartment.” For those who wish to have a home, build equity and root down just a bit deeper in a corner of their world, mortgage companies and other lenders have programs that indeed make it easier — from plans as low as %1 — %3 down, to lucrative options for veterans (both retired and active duty) and, with some bird-dogging with other companies, home buying down payments with as little as zero down do exist, depending on your circumstance. But one Detroit company, BoostUp.com, is making it about easy as possible to raise that down payment. You just have to hustle bit.

BoostUp.com is a crowdsourcin tool. At its cores, this means you’re asking people for money to acheive a goal of yours. This is not a bad thing. Friends — and those you recently became acquainted or know only in a fringe capacity;  but know nonetheless — belive ir or not, want to see greatness in you, even if they don’t know ou so well. They feel this way so they can harbest the dormant greatness they’re missing in themselves.

Yes, you’re soliciting friends and family for donations to get yourself into a house (or, in some cases, a car). If they care about you, they’ll kick down $20 or $80. This can replace so many well-meaning but missing-the-mark birthday, holiday or wedding gifts. The full story was publishing on Zing, the official Quicken Loans company blog, and can be read in full, glorious, entiterity here.

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Through my pal Rich Rezler at Rezler Communications, I was put in contact with some decision-makers at Thrillist.com. They needed someone to write a restaurant guide to Ann Arbor, in a best-of voice. There are so many glorious places to enjoy food and drink in this great Midwestern city. Read more here

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Communities worldwide struggle with ways to keep their neighbors nourished. Hunger — and the whipping it puts on a sufferer’s pride — and the idea of it, is typically reserved for images of fly-strewn children on African plains, or the well-meaning, who help fill trays of good during the holidays. Hunger is a heavy burden. And in one part of Northeast Ohio, organizations are doing the hefty lifting to help keep people full. This article was assigned to me from the fine people at Toledo City Paper. Read the rest of it here.

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A Troy, Michigan PR firm sought to create a compelling feature article on a client with a unique service. The Sacramento Picnic Company takes the legwork out of menu conception and prep. I spoke with owner James Williams in what again turned out to be a well-written article in the vision the client wanted. Read more here.

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As I continue to chronicle Major League Baseball’s ballparks, I made a smart decision to visit Great American Ballpark in Cincinnatti, the host venue to tonight’s All-Star Game. I wrote about it here:

The ‘Nati

Having visited a couple of different Major League Baseball parks years ago, I decided that I wanted to see them all, or at least as many as possible before I get too old to do it. Last year, it was PNC Park in Pittsburgh, to see the Pirates. The 4.5-hour drive was easy, so I’m using that distance as a benchmark for trips in the immediate future, at least for now.

Cincinnati seemed like an obvious choice. It, too, was roughly 4.5 hours from my suburban Detroit driveway. I knew very little of the Queen City. I booked an $80 room for a night through priceline, less than a mile walk from the park, spent a few weeks doing some critical research (locating quality dive bars and fleshing out the most realistic expectations for burrito specialists), got up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday and headed south.

It bears mentioning here that I am married to the most fabulous woman in the free world. And in non-free worlds, she would continue to shine. She encourages adventures like this, where I can get away from the house, the toddler, the dog and the same four walls I stare at daily, to traipse around all day and half of the night in a new-to-me city and explore its ballpark. Some guys don’t have it this good. Some guys, coincidentally, are also selfish and out of touch, and couldn’t be trusted with a night away from home. I continually bust ass to keep a tight house. Sometimes I need to step away from it.

In my research, I discovered a certain amount of history in Cincinnati and had outlined a handful of areas I wanted to discover. This included the old neighborhood of Over The Rhine, which is reportedly part ghetto/part history lesson. The historical Ninth Street neighborhood was also on my list, as was the city’s Music Hall and the Mount Adams neighborhood. The very moment I hit town, it started to rain. My check-in time at the Millennium Hotel was 4 p.m. so, naturally, I showed up at the front desk at 11 a.m. Luckily, my room was available. I checked in, unloaded my gear, charged my phone and headed out in the rain. The inclement weather made picture-taking impossible, as it turned from showers to a downpour. I drove through Mount Adams, which turned out to be this glorious, elevated neighborhood, with historic homes clustered together tightly, narrow streets, an array of smart-looking retailers and a seemingly unrivaled view of the city. But I was really in this charming neighborhood for one thing: Lunch at City View Tavern.

This bar is known not only as a choice neighborhood bar in Mount Adams and  its finer hamburger products, but for its deck with a nice view of the city.

I met the bartender and later, the owner, Silas. I asked to take photos inside. Silas said it would not be a concern for him. Finally, an owner who didn’t give a shit about some amateur hack snapping away in his bar. I watched part of the 2012 NFL Draft while making quick work of the Teddy Burger, and a couple of pints of Hop Bomber from the Rivertown Brewing Co. My day could’ve started and ended with just this moment and the trip would’ve felt very complete.

The rain continued, so I just chilled and had another beer before making my way back downtown. Music Hall, Over The Rhine and any sightseeing would be truncated not only by the weather, but by the 4:10 p.m. start time to the game. It was already 2:30 and that seemed like a good time to park the car for good. The hotel charged $25 for overnight valet. The parking structure kitty corner from the hotel charged $8 for overnight. I hit the room, changed clothes, beamed up, took a coupla pulls of Crown and walked to the home of the Cincinnati Reds, the Great American Ballpark.

I would do a couple of laps around the park before the game started, sitting nowhere near my $4 bleacher seat. The concourses were roomy, save for in the outfield, where a huge overhang made it feel like you were in a crowded room with a low ceiling. The stadium holds 42,271 and many of them were there for this cloudy, mild Saturday afternoon to see their beloved Reds take on the Houston Astros.

They were not disappointed. Regional icon and All-Star Joey Votto blasted a double, before scoring on a Brandon Phillips triple in the first inning. The place went absolutely bananas. The Reds would hang two more runs on Houston in the third inning and then again in the fifth, en route to a 6-0 shutout. Johnny Cueto, the rotation’s cornerstone, went seven innings, allowing only five hits and striking out three. Cueto improved his record to 3-0. And while I had never before heard of Reds’ right fielder Jay Bruce, I’ll be paying attention to him in the box scores this year. His fifth-inning homer was a huge blast and every time he came to the plate or touched the ball, the crowd grew louder.

I spent much of the game walking around the park, through the back side of the venue, behind the outfield, where the higher-end concessions were located; through the upper level where the double-decked bleachers live in left field; back through the main concourses, where I would settle down in the outfield, near the left-field wall that sits 328 feet from home plate (it’s 404 to center and 325 to left).

The game wound down and so did I. As I headed out, I again passed these statues at the main entrance of Great American Ballpark.

The pitcher is Joe Nuxhall – the legendary Reds broadcaster who called games for nearly 40 years, following an MLB career where he was not only an All-Star but set the league record for youngest player to ever start a game, doing so at age 15. The batter is Hall of Fame legend Frank Robinson and the catcher statue is that of his Cooperstown-enshrined teammate, Ernie Lombardi. The pitcher’s mound is built to MLB dimensions of that time and the terrace is sloped at the same incline as Crosley Field’s, where the Reds played their home games from 1912 to 1970.  I found it to be a compelling touch.

The game ended at 7 p.m. and I sought out O’Malley’s, one of the only real dive bars anywhere near my hotel. After walking for another mile or two with no luck, I drank in some of the downtown’s retailers on Main Street, many of whom looked like they’ve been around for a while.

Also, not the type of shop you see a lot of around town.

And this hotel is glorious in its old-girl style, but I definitely do not like the way the math adds up.

I cabbed it back to the room, where I would finally get horizontal for a few minutes – I had walked a better part of the day and my legs were like rubber –before taking a long shower, blasting some Crown and then heading back out into the rain.

I would eventually find O’Malley’s and it was quite perfect – a little bar hidden in an alley, full of regulars and blue-collared drinkers. I knew I would feel right at home. Well, that didn’t last long. Every seat at the bar was taken and the sound system was blasting Poison. I left. I stopped at Local 127 for a couple of pints, but it was painfully upscale. When I quietly apologized to the bartender for being woefully underdressed in my hoodie and cap, he looked both ways before saying to me, “Don’t sweat it. I wish we had more people like you in here.” By now it was 10 p.m. and I was shot. I walked slowly back to the hotel, through a sea of high school prom goers (when Jason texted me and advised that I “hang your nuts out of your zipper and walk around, bro”), stopping at the hotel bar for a series of bourbons before retiring for the night. I was up early the next day and on the road by 8 a.m.

I liked Cincinnati. The downtown is fresh and clean, and perfectly condensed. It’s like a small, quaint town suffering from gigantism. It’s just the right size to navigate in a day and have a rich, cultural, urban experience without being overwhelmed. Great American Ballpark is a great place to see a game. It had a smooth layout with perfect views, but by the time the game ended, I was growing bored and restless.  I don’t follow the Reds, so it was hard for me to get truly excited about the action on the field. My only regret was that I didn’t get to some of the areas of town I had hoped, and it’s doubtful I’ll be going back any time soon, if ever. No knock on the city, but I have more ballparks to see. Next up? U.S. Cellular Field on Chicago’s South Side. I called this shot years ago and have yet to follow up. Tony B., I plan to make good.

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A rager on the road

Found myself a few months ago the subject of a road rage incident. It played out this way. Click here:

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