Ponyride's Entrepreneurial Spirit

Ponyride, the brainchild of Slows Bar-B-Q founder Phil Cooley, houses innovation that feeds Detroit’s ‘renaissance’ buzz.

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An adventure and a great cup of java are brewing at Anthology Coffee. Tucked away at 1401 Vermont St. in a former abandoned warehouse in Corktown, Anthology Coffee is part of Ponyride — a community of shops and businesses found in a unique Detroit setting.

The brainchild of Slows Bar-B-Q owner Phillip Cooley, Ponyride opened two years ago and was created to house concepts and concerns its tenants were passionate about, from entrepreneurial to nonprofit. Distinctive murals decorate the building’s outer walls as you drive up — painted by many different American and international artists, as part of the Detroit Beautification Project.

Working the counter at Anthology Coffee is California native Derek Craig, 25, from Napa Valley. Craig serves up a dynamite cup of coffee called Ardi, which is from Southern Ethiopia — and tastes like blueberries and dark chocolate; it’s as good a cup of coffee as you can imagine.

Craig met Anthology Coffee owner Josh Longsdorf in California and moved to Detroit to work for him. Anthology Coffee has been up an running for more than two years and has operated out of Ponyride since last September; before that, Longsdorf operated out of various pop-up stores.

“The people of Detroit is what sold it for me” says Craig, Anthology’s only employee, about moving from the West Coast to lay stakes in the Motor City. “They are humble and genuine.”

On a peaceful Saturday morning, a ballet class is being held at the venue next door to Anthology. Craig sees the community at Ponyride as collaborative rather than competitive. “It is more like a family,” he says, where residents barter and trade in good faith. “It’s really easy for ideas to turn into something.”

On a Monday afternoon, Ponyride is positively hopping. In a shared space typically used for yoga and hip-hop dance, there is a workshop collaboration to promote joy in Detroit. The place is filled with about 40 people and growing. The energy is electric.

A visit to Ponyride is a journey. Walk upstairs to Detroit Denim Company. The owner, Eric Yelsma, has been here two years and loves Ponyride. “Any community space has its pros and cons” says Yelsma, “but this space is fantastic.”

Detroit Denim started out of Yelsma’s house, but he calls Ponyride his first real start. His handmade jeans include all U.S.-manufactured materials, made on traditional machines. He and his three part-time employees also make belts, a few leather goods and even Apple MacBook covers, developed, he says, from a Ponyride-facilitated collaboration.

Journey to the space adjacent to Detroit Denim, and you happen to the home of the Empowerment Plan, where multiple seamstresses are making coats that turn into sleeping bags. Arnetta is making pockets. Annis is working on Velcro and foot bags.

The coat-and-sleeping bag combination is the invention of Veronika Scott, who had the idea a couple of years ago while a student at the College for Creative Studies. In 2011, Scott became Ponyride’s first tenant and this has become her full-time job. Four thousand coats have been made so far this year, going all to homeless people in 10 cities throughout the country; Scott states that her main priority, however, is Detroit.

All her employees are single parents who have, themselves, been homeless. They take donations. People can sponsor coats for $100 dollars. The Empowerment Plan also receives corporate sponsorships, including from Rock Ventures, Quicken Loans and General Motors.

A return to Anthology Coffee finds Ponyride creator Cooley, who calls this space his actual home and residence. “I feel like I get to wake up and play every day,” Cooley says, “with people bouncing ideas off each other from all different disciplines, whether for profit or nonprofit.”

Cooley grew up in the rural town of Marysville, one hour north of Detroit. He earned an undergraduate film degree and then dropped out of a master’s architectural program at the University of Michigan to work full time at Slows Bar-B-Q, the company he founded.

Combining Slows and architecture school was a 180-hour week, he says, adding, “and an impossibility.” Before that, he spent two years modeling, a job that took him from New York to London, Tokyo, Paris and Barcelona.

Cooley bought the 30,000-square-foot space that is Ponyride for a bargain foreclosure rate of $100,000 with earnings from Slows because, he says, it was a bargain he could not pass up. He was looking for a residence with working shop space and wanted to no longer pay rent. He saw Ponyride as both a home and a springboard for a myriad of possibilities. He then brought in friends and, ultimately, the community to ask them what they wanted to do with the space — taking suggestions for whatever people were passionate about.

Because of volunteer labor, he is able to keep rents low, at 20 to 25 cents per square foot, constituting a 75-80 percent reduction from the market rate. There is also an educational component whereby tenants teach free classes to give back for the bargain they receive. The goal, Cooley says, is to make this sustainable.

There are 25 shops and businesses at Ponyride and another 20 waiting to get in. Remodeling is 90 percent complete. From a typeset letterpress to a production company making videos, to a metalsmith’s shop and woodworkers, the tenants, according to Cooley, are “the reason that Ponyride exists.”

The name Ponyride is meant to conjure going back in time to when people are younger and more creative with fewer hang-ups. “When you are young, everyone loves a pony ride,” says Cooley, who sees Detroit as a city of hope and tremendous potential. He feels projects like Ponyride allow people to do what they’re passionate about, “Detroiters — and Detroit — will save itself.” A visit to Ponyride truly makes this seem possible.

Carl Bookstein writes about culture and business for the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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