Opening the summer of 2011, Ponyride, a 30,000 square-foot warehouse in the Corktown area of Detroit, presently serves as home to 25 socially-conscious businesses, ranging from non-profits like Detroit Soup, to for-profit entrepreneurial ventures like Detroit Denim. Following is my conversation with Ponyride’s Executive Director Kate Bordine on how they made it happen, the power of collaboration, and the vision that keeps them moving forward.
MARK: Let’s start at the beginning… How’d you come to know about the building? And what kind of shape was it in when it was first brought to your attention?
KATE: The building, which is at 1401 Vermont, was constructed in the 1930s by Smith, Hinchman & Grylls and underwent several renovations over time, including an addition in 1955 and a remodel in 1985. It was the home of a letter graphics company, Superior Seal & Stamp Co., which unfortunately closed its doors in 2008, during the recession, when a lot of businesses tied to the automotive companies went under. It was all drop ceilings, shag carpeting, layers of drywall and tile throughout. And a few small manufacturing tenants occupied the space while the building was owned by the bank. We invited our friends, family members and people in the community in to ask them what they wanted the building to be. Of course, folks who were into music replied, “a recording studio,” and so on. We decided to let the community determine the outcome, and began retrofitting individual spaces within the building in accordance with those specific needs. For example, when a hip hop dance crew approached us and said they wanted a dance studio, they helped gut a room with eight offices in it, and lay a wood floor, which was salvaged from the gym of an abandoned school that had been slated for demolition. We now have a recording studio, a pop-up café, a wood shop, a metal studio, production and editing suites, people working in letterpress and textiles, a residency program, and a co-working space. And we encourage these different organizations to collaborate. It’s more like collisions… messy but impactful. And we’re constantly updating, painting, cleaning, replacing and maintaining the building to make it a place where people can feel comfortable and open.
MARK: I’m curious as to the timeline… How did you discover that the building was available? And how much time elapsed between your first seeing the building and your purchasing it for $100,000. I’m also curious as to what transpired during that time. Did you assemble an advisory board? Did you form a non-profit?
KATE: In 2011, the bank called Phillip Cooley to see if he might be interested in developing the building. The purchase took about three months, during which time the bank moved forward on the foreclosure. It began as a study to see how the foreclosure crisis can have a positive impact on the community, by bringing a building like this back into play in a community where move-in ready startup space is difficult to come by. Since this has been an organic process, we needed time to figure out what exactly the building would be. Early on, we created a working board. Their job was to look at the economic, social, and environmental impact of the project. This last July, we applied for 501(c)3 status, and we’re currently seeking additional grant funding to finish the building and possibly expand. In the meantime, we have a board of directors who advise the decision-making process. There have been many voices over the years (from mid-2011 on), including friends, visiting university groups, artists, organizations, and entrepreneurs. The strongest voice, though, is that of our volunteers. They are the doers who selflessly show up to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. The sweat equity of our volunteers, and the comradery it cultivates, is priceless.
MARK: What kind of research did you do prior to starting Ponyride? Did you visit other similar locations around the country? Did you identify potential tenants and get assurances that, if such a place were to exist, they’d sign leases and move in?
KATE: I’d heard of other maker-spaces, like 3rd Ward in Brooklyn, which recently closed its doors, and TechShop, which has locations in Detroit and San Francisco, but Ponyride started from a hunch. We knew that Detroiters had a ton of fortitude, but limited access to both time and space, and we wanted to change that landscape. I’ve lived in other parts of the country, and grew up in Cleveland, so I’m familiar with this cityscape. But Detroit is the first urban city I’ve lived in where there’s such a sense of community, which is really appealing. And Phillip has traveled the world, and drawn a lot of inspiration and openness from other cultures. We both tend to say ‘yes’ a lot, so, when aspiring tenants approached us, we’d do our best to retrofit the spaces in the building to accommodate them. But you really have to be community oriented, socially-minded, adaptable, and flexible to fit in here. We find that folks who show up, and help out, are driven to succeed, and stand out in a crowd. (It’s also worth noting that we still have tenants who were in the building both before and during the foreclosure.)
KATE: At first, we didn’t know what would become of the building… We just got out of the way of the people who assembled around the space. Our purpose was, and still is, to unlock the landscape and turn the keys over to self-motivated, socially-conscious entrepreneurs. Ponyride has come to be after several entrepreneurs approached us requesting space to develop their organizations. It’s simple: people just need space. By lowering the barriers to entry and creating a platform for people to take a risk, Ponyride developed into what it is today. It’s blood, sweat, and tears that brings us together, and Ponyride has evolved organically through labors of love and purpose as a service to the community around us. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, and, looking forward, I’m excited.
MARK: The name Ponyride implies, at least to me, that you’re operating a space for emerging artists and entrepreneurs to find their legs and get started, with the intention being that they’d eventually move on to riding horses, to continue the analogy. I’m curious as to what kind of process you have in place to move your tenants on to that next level.
KATE: Ponyride is a name that everyone smirks at for their own personal reason, but we like it. Essentially, we want to bring people back to the time when they were kids – curious, unbridled and more creative. Everyone wants a pony ride. You might fall off, but you just brush off your knees and jump back on. There’s a natural support system here, where everyone helps each other out. Groups are scaling at their own pace, and we’re helping accommodate that growth. Eventually, they’ll have long enough legs to grow out of the building and expand to their own building in Detroit. This would be a success for us (and for them), and we’ll do anything we can along the way to help navigate that process.
MARK: From what I’ve heard, you presently have about 25 tenants in Ponyride. I’m curious, at a high level, how that breaks down. I know there’s likely a huge overlap between artists and social entrepreneurs, but, percentage-wise, what would you say the breakdown is?
KATE: I’d recommend going to our website. It’s current and up-to-date, and you can see the various organizations in the space. I don’t have the breakdown, though, when it comes to the division between for-profit, non-profit, etc. We just look at it as a collaborative community. We have non-profits, like Detroit Soup and the Empowerment Plan, and for-profits, like Detroit Denim and Smith Shop. We see value in having people across disciplines and backgrounds converge and work together, helping to further each others businesses. And the diversity goes beyond business type, to race, age, and skill-set. The more diverse our portfolio of companies, and the people within Ponyride, the better off we all are.
MARK: According to your website, your hope is to assist in the launch of other entities like Ponyride around the country. I’m curious to know what form this assistance might take?
KATE: We’ll eventually open-source the documentation describing our process in order to show what it takes to undertake this kind of development – a road map, if you will. We can help advise, but we can’t describe what Ponyride might look like in a different city. Every community has specific needs, and we can only advise based on our experience. It’s important for us to stay true to the community that surrounds us. As soon as we finish the build-out, we’ll share all of our financial information, and people will be able to see what true costs are. And we’d love for others to be inspired and do this type of development in their cities… be diverse, and be authentic to their communities.
KATE: Space and reasonable rent. We also encourage sharing of the networks, knowledge, and resources that we all have at our fingertips. There are a lot of partnerships to tap into in Detroit and the sky is the limit for those entrepreneurs who take advantage of them. We also program lectures and workshops for our members and people in the community. Curious folks come from all over the world to visit us and take tours. And we’re working towards providing branding, legal, and financial support to our tenants as well.
MARK: You charge the entities within Ponyride around $0.20 per square-foot, per-month, which includes the cost of utilities. How does that compare to market rate in Corktown? Also, does that bring in enough revenue to make Ponyride sustainable, or do you need to continually raise money in order to subsidize those rents?
KATE: The current market rate in Corktown is $1.00. But, we’re a true non-profit. We cover the costs of taxes and utilities, and only charge $0.20-$0.25. Ideally, we’ll be able to sustain everything once we’re at full occupancy, but right now we need to keep fundraising. (We’ve been running at about 80% occupancy.) We’re currently seeking additional funding from foundations for building improvements and programs. For instance, we just ran a successful Indiegogo campaign, which raised $30,000. This will allow us to continue the build-out the remaining 20% of Ponyride, and finish the co-working space. We hope that this will provide more opportunity for folks to plug in and get involved.
MARK: How did you manage the rehabilitation of the building? I’m assuming that a great deal was done with volunteer labor, but I suspect you had to raise a considerable amount of money as well, right?
KATE: A lot of the work has been done with volunteer nights (every other Wednesday at 7:00 PM), and that sweat equity is priceless. The majority of the development, though, has been paid for out of pocket, although we did get a grant from Detroit Harmonie to replace old windows, and, more recently, the Knight Foundation helped us reach our $30,000 crowdfunding Indiegogo campaign goal. We were also named a recipient of an Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy matching grant for $50,000, which we’ll use to make improvements in the building. There’s constant maintenance and repair work that needs to be done, and, if you show up for a volunteer night, we’ll show it to you.
MARK: You chose to structure Ponyride as a non-profit. My assumption is that you did this so that you could attract grant money and other donations, which makes perfect sense. Was there ever a period, however, when you thought about structuring it as a for-profit, so as to keep the building on the tax rolls, etc? (I know this may seem like a random question, but I’ve often thought of rehabilitating a vacant building in Ypsilanti, and I struggle with how it should be structured, given that our community desperately needs tax revenue, and roughly one-third of our City is already occupied by tax-exempt entities.)
KATE: We did struggle with this decision. In some respects, being a for-profit is easier, and we needed to have a solid plan before jumping into a 501(c)3. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and you depend on others to help support what you’re doing. It was important for us to subsidize the rent down to 25% of the market rate, in order to really lower the barriers to entry. We’ve created a break-even model by covering utilities and taxes, but we need help to support construction and overall improvements, and to potentially grow. We have a small team working very hard at programing events – dinners, pop-ups, workshops, lectures, education – that are mostly free to the public. We tend to be overworked and understaffed, but that’s the nature of the beast; our passion keeps us going. It would be easier to have a for-profit model, but then we wouldn’t get into all the fun partnerships and be able to provide people with space at such reasonable rates. And it’s those partnerships that make us stronger. As with the companies inside Ponyride, we’re stronger when, out of necessity, we share networks, knowledge, and resources.
MARK: You mentioned plans to provide co-working space. Was that always part of the vision? If not, why did you decide to carve out space for it now?
KATE: We didn’t know that there was a need for a co-working space per se, but the benefits of having a wider range of entrepreneurs soon became apparent. There are a number of individual makers working in the metal studio, with textiles, in the woodshop, etc, and, after we complete the build-out of the co-working space, authors, and people working in tech and the media will be able to come in and participate as well. We hope that this addition of people with these skillsets will compliment what is already happening and perhaps provide new perspectives that will push everyone across disciplines. There are some obvious collaborations happening in the space but we love the unorthodox collisions, and those are happening.
MARK: How do you define social entrepreneurship when assessing potential Ponyriders?
KATE: A ‘social entrepreneur,’ for us, is someone who looks at problems and challenges and designs around them for the greater good. Most of our entrepreneurs are socially-minded. We attract them because we stress education and community outreach. We’re always happy to add new companies as long as they create jobs for the citizens of Detroit and employ triple bottom line business models. There are all walks of life involved in Ponyride, but if you’re into working well with others, and pretty adaptable to the ebb and flow of the space, then you’ll fit right in.
HERE’S PONYRIDE’S INDIEGOGO VIDEO: