Detroit, Bar BQ, and Ponyride

By Michael Gordon on April 11, 2012 5:09 PM 2 Comments

Phillip Cooley opened a restaurant in Detroit, Slows Bar BQSlows anchors a block in Detroit’s Corktown, a row of shops which  is changing from seedy to hip. Cooley opened Slows with some backing from his parents,  his own carpentry skills, and the sweat equity of his partners–who were also his chef and sous-chef. With sales of   $1.8 million the first year (2005), Slows and Cooley have also spread the wealth. Their very presence created a  bright spot across from Detroit’s massive, but abandoned Rail Depot. Astro coffee is now next door, bustling with activity, and Cooley, himself, is marching with tools in hand from building to building making improvements. He dispenses  advice and stakes others  who want to build businesses to help the community.

A half-mile or so down the street from Slows is another Cooley idea — Ponyride. The name, of course, evokes a sense of childlike wonder, and that is surely what the facility will create. Now, it is a 30,000 square foot industrial space being converted into a launching pad for Detroit-changing businesses and activities. Tenants wield crowbars and hammers, exchanging their labor for incredibly low rents: $.10-$.20 per square foot, utilities included.
Among current tenants are artists, furniture makers, and studios for tango, fencing, and dance. And Veronika Scott. 

Veronika Scotts space at PR.JPG

Inside Ponyride7.JPG

Scott’s organization, The Empowerment Plan, is a social enterprise that makes a self-heated, waterproof coat that expands to become a sleeping bag. Made by homeless women, the coat is designed precisely for those not lucky enough to know if they’ll have a place to sleep for the night, or where.
Eventually, Ponyride will hold monthly open houses where community members can take classes in things like letterpress, woodworking, fencing, maybe even accounting–people in these professions are all tenants, too–to learn something they didn’t know and that they may be able to apply in their own lives. “Ponyride is a tool to challenge the imagination,” said Nick Piotrowski, Ponyride’s office manager and Executive Board member.
Cooley hopes that current tenants like Veronika Scott burst the seams of the space they occupy at Ponyride, finding bigger digs where they can do more good, hire more people, and maybe even take the idea of Ponyride and start something similar. Ponyride itself is creating an open-source description of its own operations, successes and mistakes, for others to learn from. 
Just as Henry Ford borrowed his ideas for his assembly line from meat packing plants and then saw his own innovations widely adopted in manufacturing, Cooley is not the first to undertake urban revitalization, but he is laying down a model that others will surely follow. His energy, commitment, success, and willingness to share guarantee it.
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Slows lets us know that there are ways that entrepreneurial activity can bring inclusive gains. Good ideas create ripples, immediately and in ways never intended or imagined. The pebble that gets the ripples going seems to be money, but it is really the unleashing of productive energies. Money, moolah, hard cash can do that. But there are other ways., which we’ll cover another time.

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