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1401 Vermont
Detroit, MI 48216

Phillip Cooley

by Tunde Wey
March 21, 2012

Phillip Gordon Cooley is a social entrepreneur. He believes dinosaurs -- well, corporate dinosaurs -- still exist, but their extinction is fast approaching.
Cooley’s goal is to remove the distinctions people create between good business and good community. “Considering your employees, the environment and community will benefit you long term," he says. "It might cost more in the short term, but it will pay off. If you don’t operate this way, you are a dinosaur and you will not be around for very long.”
To have a healthy business, Cooley believes you need a healthy community. And he has been in the community-building business for some time now. Inspired by Tyree Guyton of Heidelberg Project fame, Cooley moved to the city 11 years ago. At the time of his move, Detroit's music, art and cultural scene were heralding the distinct wave of creativity and innovation he craved. Tyree, he says, “made me believe more was coming.”
Cooley came to the city without really knowing anyone, but with an eagerness to baptize himself in Detroit’s D.I.Y. spirit. A graduate of film school, he keenly realized that people might not pay for the kind of film work he was interested in pursuing. Cooley says he made a conscious decision "to join the traditional capitalist structure to be able to accomplish more daring ideas.”
In 2005 he made his first foray into business. Along with a group of partners, Cooley opened up Slows Bar BQ in Corktown, which soon became one of the city’s more successful and popular restaurants. Cooley’s father co-signed a loan to purchase the building, where he then worked for months with friends to convert the derelict structure into a warm and richly wooded dining space.
Over time, Cooley has parlayed the financial success of Slows into various community projects. His efforts range from helping other entrepreneurs open new businesses, to working to rehabilitate Roosevelt Park, an open grassy stretch that lies in the shadow of Michigan Central Station.
His most recent project, Ponyride, might be the daring idea Cooley has been setting up for. Ponyride is a 30,000 square foot building that serves as an incubator and workspace for socially-minded artists and entrepreneurs. In 2011, Cooley purchased the building for $100,000, wanting to prove that communities could benefit from the tragedy of the foreclosure crisis. Due to the low purchase price, he can now offer inexpensive rental rates from $0.10 to $0.20 per square foot, including utilities. (Just to give you an idea, a tenant using 4,700 square feet of space -- about the size of a basketball court -- pays only $470 a month.)
With Ponyride, Cooley says he wants to create a space “where people can focus on their craft and not worry about making the rent.” At the same time, he is also intentionally creating an ecosystem of unlikely connections. A fencing academy (En Garde! Detroit), a coat manufacturer (The Empowerment Plan), a boat maker, a media company, a furniture company, a hip hop dance studio and a letterpress facility are among the dozen plus businesses housed in Ponyride. When asked about the rationale behind assembling such an assortment of talents, Cooley describes it as “creating an organic programming process that stays away from over-planning and over-engineering. Collisions instead of collaborations.”
Ponyride would not be possible without many, many hours of sweat equity. For the last year, Cooley, his tenants and a volunteer army of over 150 people have been working to rehabilitate the 80-year-old building. As a condition of their lease, tenants have also committed to teach free monthly community classes. Cooley says this benefits both the community and the businesses: “Entrepreneurs are able to understand their community, which in turn benefits their work.”

As they go, Cooley and his executive team are documenting the entire process of creating this new building development paradigm. Maybe one day they can offer a blueprint for others to follow. In the meantime, Cooley is not only funding his own daring ideas, but the daring ideas of other entrepreneurs. Dinosaurs, take heed.

Portrait by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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