But look closer and you'll see the building's name, Ponyride, which hangs above the front door as another hint that what's inside is something other than ordinary. Enter, and you'll wander into a hip-hop dance studio, a woodworking shop and a bright, modern coffeeshop. Meandering upstairs, you'll find yourself amongst cheery office spaces, then a kitchen, and then a warehouse full of 20-some industrial sewing machines, all abuzz with activity. Metalsmiths clang on their craft as woodworking tools whirr. There are people everywhere and they're all busy, chatting around conference tables, sipping coffee or jumping up to grab more fabric for their sewing stations.
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Like the carousel implied by its name, Ponyride is a wondrous and dizzying experience. And for more than 40 Detroit startups and emerging nonprofits, the 30,000-square-foot building is also home—a home most wouldn't have had the opportunity to come by otherwise, despite the city's reputation as a place flush with vacancy these days.
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"You look around Detroit and see all this abandonment, but the reality is it's all owned by [people] who not only don't care about the city, but actually do their best to hold it back for their own personal gain," says Phil Cooley, the co-owner of Detroit's famous Slows Bar BQ who founded Ponyride four years ago. "Real estate looks plentiful here, but it's not."
Despite Detroit's excess of vacant buildings, very little of it is available to new entrepreneurs—and much of the real estate that is available requires so much renovation work, it would be unaffordable to a new business owner. So when Cooley received a a phone call tipping him off to a large foreclosed building that was actually available for purchase, he wanted to put it into the hands of Detroiters with big ideas but no access to the space needed to bring them to life. He gathered makers, thinkers and creators together, and asked them what they wanted to do with the space.
[image-with-info source="Doug Coombe" alignment="left" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/1-intro-phil-horse-side-7647.jpg"][/image-with-info]
"I think people are completely capable themselves of changing this landscape—economic, political and social," Cooley says. "It was all about seeing what would happen if they had access to that space again."
What he learned from those interested in Ponyride was that some wanted space for manufacturing, some wanted offices, others wanted to make a dance studio and a boat-making facility and a letterpress business. So Ponyride became all of those things.
But those community members with big ideas didn't just toss out demands and wait for Cooley to hire out for the renovations. Ponyride isn't simply somewhere to get cheap rent. Though Cooley purchased the building and continues to help support the operations and maintenance when needed, Ponyride operates as a nonprofit, relying on grants, supporters, crowdfunding, and, perhaps most importantly, volunteerism and collaboration. It's a community sustained by the connections between tenants, and built upon their own sweat equity. Even before a single tenant moved into the space, they and other volunteers did the exhaustive work of renovating the outdated building.
[pullquote username="phillip_cooley" alignment="center"]I think people are completely capable themselves of changing this landscape—economic, political and social. It was all about seeing what would happen if they had access to that space again.[/pullquote]
"There was a lot of work that needed to be done, but it was really exciting," says Veronika Scott, CEO and founder of The Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit that creates coats that turn into sleeping bags for the homeless—and one of Ponyride's first tenants. "In the beginning, a lot of board members were like, 'This is taking too long. You need to find a space that is ready to go.'"
But Scott had a good feeling about the place, even before the concept was fully developed. At the time, she was operating her nonprofit from a small room inside a Detroit homeless shelter.
[image-with-info source="Doug Coombe" alignment="full-width" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/ponyride-openforum-1-intro-fullwidth-4304.jpg"]Alan Languirand, founder, Apprend with Phil Cooley, founder, Ponyride[/image-with-info]
"Having gone to art school, I had missed that energy when I was initially starting in the shelter," she says. "When I got into Ponyride, the whole community was just so excited about their businesses, and we were all figuring it out at the same time."
Ponyride exists to give entrepreneurs the ability to capitalize on affordable space, as well as a number of intangible benefits that have arisen organically from the unique nonprofit. Less structured than many incubators but more collaborative and purpose-driven than a typical multi-use commercial building—all tenants are required to donate at least six hours a month to community education—Ponyride is an organization built on creating opportunities for Detroiters, who then create opportunities for others, which amounts to a chain reaction of opportunities for Detroit.
Today, four years after Ponyride was founded, the organization has grown and changed—and its impact has spread through a city newly emerged from bankruptcy, with a future full of opportunities ahead of it.
Artwork in top image created by The Detroit Beautification Project