Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ponyride’

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.”

 

Read Full Post »