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Development Done Differently

Phillip Cooley’s Ponyride offers a unique approach

Page 14-16

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Following the success of Slows Bar BQ in Corktown, Phillip Cooley could have easily called it a day. Instead, the restaurateur purchased a 30,000 squarefoot warehouse, also in Corktown, to afford those who seek to bring their own entrepreneurial dreams to life a place to design, build, grow and succeed. In the process Cooley, perhaps unwittingly, took on a new title: economic developer.

Cooley’s Ponyride inherently challenges the conventional approach to development and represents the coming together of individuals, businesses, nonprofits, artists and entrepreneurs looking to benefit from the synergy so often a byproduct of shared space.

“When I think about what has helped me to be successful, it was access to time and space,” Cooley said. “Detroit has so many buildings being held by people who don’t have Detroit’s best interests in mind. We decided to give back to the people when we purchased this space. We knew if we opened a building, people would have time and space to create.”

Cooley charges his tenants a mere 25 cents per square foot to rent space and that includes their utilities. “That is 75 percent rent reduction,” he said. “In return, we ask for social entrepreneurship.”

To that end, Ponyride helps with resources and providing opportunities for tenants to give back to the community and to Ponyride itself. “When you sign a lease, you agree to teach a skill set to people in the community,” Cooley explained.

“Detroit has so many buildings being held by people who don’t have Detroit’s best interests in mind. We decided to give back to the people when we purchased this space. We knew if we open a building, people would have time and space to create.” – Phillip Cooley, Owner, Slows Bar BQ; Founder, Ponyride

Ponyride’s tenants include an independent coffee shop, a denim company, a proprietor of beard conditioner, an attorney and a filmmaking company. Perhaps the most recognizable tenant is The Empowerment Plan, the brainchild of Veronika Scott, who, as a College for Creative Studies junior, came up with the idea for the manufacture of coats that double as sleeping bags for homeless individuals.

“Veronika was a part-time employee at first. Over the past two-and-a-half years, she has grown the operation to include a team of 18 formerly homeless women working on the floor making the coats and five others working in administrative roles,” Cooley said.

For tenants whose success has them on the upward trajectory, Cooley is hoping to see them graduate from the space at 1401 Vermont St. and eventually move to space in a potential second Ponyride location.

“We’re in the inspection phase of another building in north Corktown,” Cooley said. “It has to make financial sense though. Ponyride currently loses $40,000 a year. The 2.0 version of Ponyride would raise rent, so it is closer to a 50 percent rent reduction. The folks ready to step up and move to the new space would then free up room for new individuals, organizations or businesses.”

“Our goal is not to open Ponyrides all over. We want to provide the roadmap for other people to think about development differently.” – Phillip Cooley, Owner, Slows Bar BQ; Founder, Ponyride

Cooley’s success with Slows and Ponyride and his commitment to Detroit’s revitalization have made him a soughtafter mentor. He has been approached by individuals outside of Detroit for guidance on implementing Ponyride-like endeavors elsewhere.

“We have advised other folks doing similar things all over, including recently in Alabama and Cincinnati. They want to learn from our successes and failures,” Cooley said.

“Our goal is not to open Ponyrides all over,” he explained. “We want to provide the roadmap for other people to think about development differently.”

Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a metro Detroit freelance writer.