Detroit entrepreneurs, businesses, nonprofits finding success inside Ponyride

Warehouse in Detroit offers low rents to tenants, but they have to give back in return

DETROIT – It is a warehouse that sits in Corktown with the name above the door: Ponyride.

No ponies are inside, but the name is important.

"The philosophy behind it is they wanted to have a place where people could be free to innovate, not have fear to fail, not feel that they have any  pressures on them to strive for perfection all the time, but it's really just to have fun," said Christianne Sims, the communications coordinator for Ponyride.  "When people thought about what's fun and childhood is always fun and well who doesn't like a pony ride so its just more of a brainstorm name that was fun that represents the philosophy of have fun, do great things and keep moving."

The building on Vermont Street was purchased by Phil Cooley in 2011.   He is a general contractor with O'Connnor Development and one of the owners of Slows Bar B Q.   He bought the warehouse to store his tools and woodworking machines but since he took ownership the 30,000 square feet of Ponyride has been transformed.

"We're a maker space, we have service-oriented businesses, we have nonprofits, we have manufacturers," said Sims about the diversity of the types of entrepreneurs and businesses they cater to inside Ponyride.

The rent is well below market value and there is a reason for that.   Cooley and the Ponyride board want the people using the space to be free to pursue their passions and not worry about making the rent.    However, tenants must give back to Detroit and Ponyride through educational programs and volunteering.

The owners of the Smith Shop, Gabriel Craig and Amy Weiks, were among the first tenants of Ponyride.

"We make kitchen wear, hollow wear, housewares, serving ware, we do lots of jewelry,' said Gabriel Craig.

The tenants have all had a hand in helping recreate the space inside Ponyride, working as a team to build out the different spaces.  

"You actually have to create your space and then start your business," said Craig.  

"When you have to build your ventilation system, and all the furniture, remove the existing infrastructure that no longer works and then paint and then do everything to make it a functional space, you take ownership over the building and the community and you take pride in where you're working in and what you created. And I think that's really special and much different than just moving into some place and saying 'OK here is my office and it already has the desks and it already has the drop ceilings and it has the lights and it has the Internet and all I need to do is work on my company,'" said Craig.

Many of the tenants inside Ponyride told Local 4 one of the benefits of being there is sharing resources and expertise among each other.

Andrew Ward, owner of Line Studio, uses a space to make his cast concrete works including furniture, counter tops, bath tubs, fountains and planters among other things.  Ward said if he has a problem chances are there is someone working in the building that can help him.

"What has been great about it is the people around here, the sharing of resources have been outstanding," said Ward.  "What its done is allowed me to kind of gear up slowly."

The owner of Beard Balm, Jon Koller, agrees with Ward.

"The metal workers, the concrete workers, leatherworkers and the woodworkers, everybody has such, you know, a wealth of knowledge," Koller said.

Koller is an example of how no space is too small to grow a successful business.   His Beard Balm business started in one small room and has now expanded to under include the space under the stairwell.

"We ship to all over the world, we ship to maybe, I don't know, 30 or 40 countries, we also sell to a lot of local shops in Detroit and across the country," said Koller.

Other businesses working out of Ponyride include The Empowerment Plan that makes coats that turn into sleeping bags for the homeless, Detroit Denim, the Dirt Label and Order Other a film-making company.

Ponyride also has a co-working space that is used by entrepreneurs, authors, nonprofits, technology companies and others.    Jacquise Purifoy is an attorney who works and meets clients in the space.

"Most people expect you to have the books and kind of that classical lawyerly office and I'm like 'No, I'm kind of in a warehouse.' And they are surprised because they don't expect it," said Purifoy.

The co-working space, like the rest of Ponyride, is in demand, so newcomers could have to wait.

"Our capacity, we're pretty much 100 percent full, our coworking space is 100 percent reserved right now," said Sims.

Sims says they have gained tenants mostly through word-of-mouth and they are full.

Ponyride also has a dance studio it rents out for classes or meetings.

A lot of the materials used to refurbish and remodel Ponyride are reclaimed or recycled, just another way the tenants and the Ponyride board tries to make the most out of everything.

For more information on Ponyride, click here.