Entrepreneurial Incubator Ponyride Helping Revitalize Detroit, Grantmakers Say

Friday, May 23, 2014

Mike Gallagher
CMF Editorial Correspondent

Unlike many people, Phillip Cooley never looked at the abandoned, graffiti-marred, buildings peppering Detroit’s historic Corktown neighborhood as a depressing reality of a failing city.

In fact, the innovative visionary only saw a landscape that was perfect for his plan to create an incubator for social entrepreneurship that could help give birth to the dreams of Motown citizens armed with little money, but big ideas.

Cooley, co-owner of the Detroit-based Slow’s Bar-B-Q, bet his own dollars, hopes and belief on the ability of empowerment, cooperative strength and low rents to catalyze positive change not only for individuals with a business dream of their own, but also the city as a whole.

And that bet has paid off.

Artist at work in Ponyride

From his vision emerged Ponyride, located in the heart of Corktown, a magnet that is drawing together a network of socially-minded artists and entrepreneurs that is helping cultivate the revitalization of Detroit.

Foundation leaders from around southeast Michigan gathered recently at a Detroit Area Grantmakers (DAG) meeting at Ponyride, located at 1401 Vermont, to learn about the ongoing success of this effort.

“Ponyride is a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on our communities,” says Cooley. “Using an ‘all boats rise with the tide’ subsidy, we are able to provide cheap space for socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs to work and share knowledge, resources and networks.

“We purchased this 30,000-square-foot warehouse for $100,000 and now offer space for about .25 cents per square foot, which includes utilities,” he adds. “Try and find that rental space deal anywhere in the city. You won’t be able to!”

Cooley has brought more than his wallet to the table. His expertise as a general contractor with Detroit-based O’Connor Real Estate & Development has been utilized to help design and rehab the once-vacant warehouse.

Currently, Ponyride’s co-working space is 90% occupied with construction underway for expansion. On the waiting list are more than 30 entrepreneurs, authors, nonprofits, technology companies, etc., chomping at the bit to move in, says executive director Kate Bordine.

“We engage a diverse group of creative, caring people by giving them the opportunity for production, community outreach and education,” notes Cooley. “This is made possible because we set tenants’ rent well below market rates due to the low purchase price of the property and the outpouring of community support in the form of various resources.”

Though starting with his own money, Cooley and the effort he was making to help breathe life back into the city he loves, was soon noticed by the foundation members behind Detroit’s New Economy Initiative (NEI) which has since been instrumental in providing grants towards building new co-working space and programming at Ponyride.

In 2007, 10 foundations contributed an initial $100 million to create NEI with the goal of returning Detroit to its position as a global economic leader through strategic grants, network building and experienced leadership.

“We couldn’t be more grateful to Dave Egner (NEI executive director) and the NEI team for all their support, advice and encouragement,” says Cooley. “It’s work such as theirs that is helping bring Detroit back to its former greatness.”

“Ponyride is an ongoing success story,” says Egner. “It’s a great concept that is helping bring life back into that area of Detroit…and hopefully will spread throughout the city.”

This Motown incubator has had a slew of partners and programs along the way contributing to its success, including: Michigan Social Ventures Fund, Little Things Lab, Van Dusen Lecture Series, Skidmore Studio, OpenCo Detroit, D:Hive, The Gates Foundation, ArtServ Michigan, THAW, MBA's Across America, Kresge Art Fellows, and GreenHill Schools to name a few.

DAG attendees taking a tour of Ponyride

And giving back is a cornerstone of this innovative project. For example, businesses supported by Ponyride include The Empowerment Plan, which hires homeless women to be full-time seamstresses creating coats that transform into sleeping bags for homeless individuals.

Benefitting from all this innovation and creativity are several start-up companies which are getting a helping hand – and proving successful – at Ponyride, including: Anthology Coffee, Brand Camp, Paul P. Karas Designs, Smith Shop, Edible Wow, Stukenbourg and Detroit Denim.

The DAG event at Ponyride impressed many attending foundation leaders.

“I think what they are doing here is incredible,” says Melonie Colaianne, president of the Masco Corporation Foundation. “Giving a helping hand to Detroit entrepreneurs to assist them in starting their own businesses is not only helping them, but revitalizing the city as well, especially here in the Corktown area.”

Jodee Fishman Raines, vice president of programs at the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, agrees.

“It’s this kind of dedication to giving and giving back that is making a difference in the effort to revitalize Detroit,” she says, noting that helping people build their dreams while at the same time strengthening a city is always a winning combination.

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