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Detroit small-business incubator Ponyride hatches hopes of the next big thing in southwest Detroit's Corktown. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Five years ago, it was an abandoned building. Today, the incubator is creating jobs and Detroit-made products sold worldwide

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Meander through Ponyride — where homeless women make sleeping bags that turn into coats, next to an ex-convict who sews organic T-shirts, near two millennials changing the way people buy furniture — and you might have a difficult time describing this business concept to someone else.

“It’s hard to talk about Ponyride,” says co-founder Phillip Cooley. “It’s way better to see Ponyride because there’s not a lot of spaces like this.”

In 2011, Cooley bought the 30,000-square-foot foreclosed building — that once housed a printing press — from a bank for $100,000. At the time, he was just looking for a home and a place for his woodshop. He didn’t need all 30,000 square feet, so he asked friends what to do with the hulking white structure on Vermont Street.

The musicians suggested a recording studio. The dancers suggested a dance studio. The movie producers suggested a production space.

Cooley ultimately decided the building should be whatever Detroiters wanted, and needed, it to be.

Five years since the first tenant moved in on Memorial Day weekend, Ponyride has been home to more than 60 entrepreneurs. Some have graduated and moved into commercial retail space, like Detroit Denim, which started in Ponyride with five sewing machines and 500 square feet. Recently a 4,300-square-foot store opened in Detroit. Others, like the Empowerment Plan, plan to rent another building to expand production. And others, like the T-shirt company Lazlo, moved in this year with the intent of following the path of their predecessors and grow out of the space.

“We’ve far exceeded my expectations,” says Cooley, reflecting on the past five years. “The only thing I was right about is people are amazing.”

It’s 9 a.m. one chilly April Tuesday, and Cooley stepped into the Anthology coffee shop on Ponyride’s first floor, a yellow tape measure in one hand and iced drink in a mason jar in the other. His engine red Carhartt suspenders hold up his jeans.

The 38-year-old former model has subtle bags under his eyes, hinting he’s likely not getting much sleep between teaching at Lawrence Technological University, overseeing Slows Bar BQ and renovating a historic Detroit fire station into his home. But for two-and-a-half years, Ponyride was his home.

Cooley and his wife, Kate Bordine, a Ponyride co-founder, slept on a mattress in a 10-by-10 room as they spearheaded the building’s makeover.

“We were the janitors. We were the construction crew. We were the security team. We were everything,” Cooley says. Technically, Detroit zoning laws prohibited the couple from living there, but “it was the only way Ponyride was going to happen,” he says.

Bordine, 35, says it took a lot of “sweat equity” to clean up the mess. They’d host volunteer nights every Wednesday. While kicking back beers, dozens of volunteers tore down walls, repaired dropped ceilings and installed windows, transforming the space into whatever the tenants envisioned.

Monthly rental rates range from $50 to over $4,000 a month. At 50 cents per square foot — about half the market rate — Ponyride is for the entrepreneur without capital.

“They may not have anything but the will or the vision to start,” says Ponyride board member Catherine Kelly. “You could start with a dollar at Ponyride.”

It’s called Ponyride because Bordine says they wanted people “to go back to the time they were a child.”

While art collectives and tech hubs have similar missions encouraging innovation, Ponyride sparks collaborations on diverse projects — from social justice and sustainability to fashion design.

“It a great social laboratory,” says Michael Stone-Richards, a philosophy professor at the College for Creative Studies, who’s known Cooley for eight years. “His involvement in this project speaks to his commitment, practicality and vision.”

Giving back

Each tenant must provide at least three hours of educational programming a month; it could be workshops on sustainable clothing or teaching a student woodworking.

Giovanni Claro, a senior at Western International High School, stumbled in the Smith Shop two years ago for a class project. The 18-year-old Detroiter says the experience inspired him to pursue a career in civil engineering.

“They taught me how to weld, cutting, grinding,” Claro says. “I impressed them, and they made me come back and they taught me jewelry making and more stuff with metal.”

The education-entrepreneurship model has caught the attention of outsiders. Cooley has received calls from New York to an Alabama town of 12,000 interested in trying something similar. Believing the model could work in other cities, he answers all questions.

“If other people do this, they’ll do it better than we do,” he says. “And they’ll teach us some things.”

If someone comes up with a better financial model, Cooley will be all ears. This is the first year he broke even. He lost about $40,000 a year for the first four years — and covered all costs himself. “That was a rough pill to swallow,” he says.

Being a nonprofit, Ponyride has received assistance from a few grants. A recent Kresge grant will open up space for four more entrepreneurs; roughly 40 work in the building.

Cooley also plans to build shipping container retail space outside of Anthology, so the entrepreneurs can display and sell their products.

The goal is to open by the holidays, but Cooley admits next spring might be more realistic.

The next five years

Looking toward the next five years, Bordine envisions opening another building where entrepreneurs have more room for production. For instance, Lazlo could be headquartered at Ponyride but manufacture T-shirts in the second building.

For Cooley, Ponyride is a way to break down silos and offer opportunities outside “traditional development paths” that he says lead to homogenization.

“I moved here to get away from that,” he says. “I lived in Chicago, New York, Paris, London, Milan, Barcelona — these great cities that also were not very economically diverse and sometimes were not racially and age diverse.”

Ponyride opens up doors for people to “find their own path,” he says.

“The magic is what these people do together when they’re given an opportunity to do so — whether it’s starting companies or the job creating that happens here.”

Today, Ponyride is a melting pot with more than 100 seamstresses, metalworkers, furniture makers, event organizers, coffee roasters, artists and dreamers.

“Now it’s wild,” Cooley smiles. “It’s what it’s supposed to be.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

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