Ponyride 1.5: Maker space looks ahead to the future after moving from Corktown to Core City

Ponyride is in a transition phase, both literally and philosophically.

The maker space has left their longtime Corktown home for an old pickle factory in Core City. Gone are the dance studio and coffee shop — though the dance studio remains at the old building and Anthology has since moved to Eastern Market.

Whereas before Ponyride owned and operated a 28,000-square-foot building, they now operate out of an 11,000-square-foot floor of someone else’s building. While it may seem that they have downsized, it’s a reorganization that should lead to an even larger Ponyride that is more expansive in reach. Just not yet.

Rather than continue to offer coworking office space, a business model thriving at plenty of other places throughout the city, Ponyride is instead focusing on what it's good at while working toward an expanded campus model, one that supports its own maker space and others, as well. Also in the works is a $2 million small business loan fund, a public sculpture park, and more.

So while the team there affectionately refers to their current state as Ponyride 1.5, a much bigger vision exists in the coming Ponyride 2.0.

“I think the mission is still about supporting artists, makers, light manufacturing, and creative entrepreneurs in the city,” says Michael Andrews, interim executive director at Ponyride.

“Within that, there is also a commitment to those producers that have a certain aspect of being socially conscious with what they produce, how they operate their businesses, who they’re supporting, how they’re giving back. That is something that is definitely the ethos of the original Ponyride and something that is very much definitely embedded in our mission.

“I don’t think the mission is changing, just how it happens.”

‘We thought we might have to wind down’

Ponyride 1.0 happened organically, says founder Phil Cooley. He didn’t necessarily know what the building at 1401 Vermont St. in Corktown would become, he says, just that it was an opportunity to have a place where people could create at below market rates.

Having purchased the building in 2011, Cooley and company would eventually clean the place up, inviting artists, makers, and more. That would expand to include the coworking space and coffee shop, among other ideas pursued.

Ponyride founder Phil Cooley. Photo by Nick Hagen.

It was a confluence of events that led Cooley to sell the original building, he says. As building repairs added up and began to seem insurmountable, development in Corktown began to take off. Real estate prices increased and eventually, once Ford Motor Company purchased the nearby Michigan Central Station, Cooley was in a great position to sell the building, which he would for $3.3 million in early 2019.

“At first, honestly, when we received the paperwork of what we needed to do to satisfy the city, it was kind of like, well, we’re screwed. Because we can’t afford this and then we’d simply be market rate and what’s the point,” Cooley says.

“We could do that, don’t get me wrong, but Ponyride as a nonprofit is trying to subsidize space to support diverse entrepreneurs, whether they’re people of color or women or entrepreneurs in general in Detroit.

“We thought we might have to wind down.”

In moving to Core City, he was able to keep rent prices below market rates, one of Ponyride’s core missions.

Ponyride occupies one floor of the old pickle factory at the moment, with the option to expand to up to two more. Most of their tenants made the move with them, while others graduated to spaces of their own, something Cooley is happy to see just as much as anything.

One of the tenants that did make the move was Six Feet Over, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mental and emotional health throughout Metro Detroit. Through their program Suck It Suicide, the organization offers financial support to families, helping to cover the cost for funerals, memorials, and cleanup services. They raise much of their funds through the sale their own line of T-shirts, jackets, and other merchandise.

Katie Hardy, founder, president, and CEO of the organization, moved Six Feet Over out of her home to the Corktown Ponyride in 2018. She says there was no question as to whether they were going to make the move to Core City. “I’m going to stick around here as long as I can,” she says.

She likes the new space, both for its location in Core City and for its first-floor access. But most of all, it’s the Ponyride community that she appreciates the most.

“A lot of us go to the same festivals, so you get to see everyone make their stuff before it comes out. We cross-promote each other,” Hardy says, adding “We’ve become a little tribe. It’s cool to see what people are passionate about and watch them do it.”

Ponyride is still modifying the new space for their 12 tenants, just as they did at the original. Electrical outlets are being moved to accommodate tenants’ needs, floor plans reconfigured. Ponyride 1.5 is a transition phase, after all.

Beyond Core City

But much is in the works for Ponyride 2.0, a plan that will see the organization grow beyond its brick walls, investing in cultivating public spaces and partnerships with neighborhood organizations.

Just around the corner from their new location, Ponyride has obtained a vacant parcel, about an acre in size. Located on Warren Avenue behind the Save A Lot on Grand River, the team has begun clearing brush from the overgrown lot. Ponyride envisions a public space and sculpture park, though work and money dictates that the vision is a year or two from being completed.

It’s an increasingly busy neighborhood. New businesses and developments like Ochre Bakery and the True North Quonset hut community have opened alongside established neighborhood stalwarts that include U.S. Auto Supply and the Detroit Training Center.

“This is still an affordable place where people can still dream and that’s important that we can remember that,” Cooley says.

“Detroit has seen some tremendous growth and that has led to a lot of good. At the same time, we can’t forget that we need affordable spaces for people to experiment so we can create the next Thomas Edison and Henry Ford and Berry Gordy.”

Cooley and company hope to make an impact beyond their Core City headquarters. Ponyride is in talks with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeast Michigan to help open a maker space at the Dick & Sandy Dauch Campus on Tireman Avenue.

Cooley credits that organization’s president and CEO Shawn Wilson as a visionary. Rather than limit their services to children, Wilson asks: What if the Boys and Girls Club offered services to their parents, as well? How much more of an impact would that make? The maker space would allow parents and guardians the opportunity to take their businesses out from their kitchen tables and take the next step forward. The potential for partnerships for community-level maker spaces throughout the city abound.

Ponyride has also taken over a $2 million federal loan fund from the Corktown Community Development Fund. While it won’t be fully up and running for another year, the new loan fund will allow small business owners the opportunity for midlevel loans, something that Cooley says he hears tenants bemoan the lack of, and at 1 to 2 % interest rates, to boot.

“We went from kind of doomsday to a really exciting spot,” Cooley says.

“It’s a transition that, just like Ponyride 1.0, has happened very organically.”

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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.