WILMINGTON – Just a year ago, the coworking industry was exploding. These trendy shared workspaces – which have gained popularity in places like San Francisco, Atlanta and Raleigh – started eyeing moves to smaller markets like Wilmington.
Pre-Covid, 77% of coworking companies planned on opening new locations in 2019, according to a Coworker Member’s Choice Awards survey.
The idea of swapping gray cubicles and water coolers for a ping-pong break, luxury coffee and craft beer, and a shared entrepreneurial spirit was persuading millennial freelancers, tech startups and everyone in between to buy memberships at shared workplaces.
When Covid-19 hit, constraining people to work from home and attend Zoom meetings, the future demand for coworking became blurry.
Still, Aaron Ellis believes the timing is prime for the trendy workplace he manages, Common Desk, to open in a city like Wilmington.
A Dallas-based company, Common Desk is hoping to make a splash in North Carolina after nine years of operating solely in Texas. It is starting with its Wilmington location and plans to open a new Raleigh site this summer. It expects to have 27 locations nationwide by the end of the year.
“North Carolina’s kind of the next frontier, if you will,” Ellis, community manager, said.
He said Common Desk is on the hunt for growing markets and is fond of revitalized downtown areas – qualities that Wilmington possesses.
The new Common Desk at 226 North Front Street is located in the heart of north downtown Wilmington, an area of revitalization. It’s building off the momentum of luxury, urban projects such as River Place and DGX (a fancy Dollar General on its first floor), located just across the street. Those projects are the product of Common Desk’s own developer and landlord, East West Partners.
The building spans nearly 23,000 square feet with nine conference rooms, 34 private offices, four team suites and shared desk areas. Kitchen spaces on all three floors offer bottomless drip coffee, and eventually beer and wine. Upfront, members can order specialty drinks from the Fiction Coffee espresso bar, Common Desk’s own java brand.
“The big goal behind coworking like this is that, if you’re a CEO or whatever, you don’t have to work on creating the office environment. We do that,” Ellis said. “We take care of utilities, WiFi, all the kitchen stuff, all the events and culture and community. And the goal is that they just come in and work.”
All Common Desks are unique. Members can visit the high-rise location in Houston or the shipping container community in East Austin. For Wilmington, Common Desk is housed in a historic structure known as the Gaylord building.
Gaylord’s Big Racket Store was the first department store in Wilmington in the 1900s. A century ago, “racket” was the term used for what are now called department stores, according to a UNC case study on the neighbors of Bijou Theater.
The landmark of that former movie theater, Bijou Park — across the street from Common Desk — is about to undergo renovations as well, to adjust to the changes sparked by River Place.
In the 1900s, Gaylord’s boasted $40,000 worth of merchandise (more than $1 million in today’s dollars), with dry goods, men’s clothes and shoes on the first floor; women’s clothes on the second floor; and carpets and furniture on the third floor.
Also on the top floor, merchants from across the eastern Carolinas would purchase goods at Gaylord’s wholesale offices to bring back to the shops in their small town. The business folks would ride trains into the Port City multiple times a year.
A banner from the building’s grand opening now hangs in one of the first rooms Common Desk members and visitors walk into, a shared desk area that doubles as an event space for networking, happy hours and after-hours meetups.
Following Gaylord’s, the Front Street spot became the first Belk Williams in Wilmington in 1917. Belk eventually relocated to Chestnut Street in 1952. After the birth of shopping malls and popularization of suburbs, Belk moved to Independence Mall in 1979.
From 1960 through 1979, the original Gaylord’s building was a Walgreens. It has sat vacant since the ‘80s, and eventually the roof caved in the back and a tree grew in what is now Common Desk’s kitchen.
East West Partners could see the neglect from its River Place showroom next door.
“I looked at this dilapidated building for the last four years and just tried to figure out if there’s a development opportunity there,” Lucien Ellison, senior managing partner for East West Partners, said.
East West Partners has worked on other projects that house coworking spaces in North Carolina’s Triangle area, including in The Station at East 54, a private-public project with the Town of Chapel Hill, and within Crabtree Terrace, a mixed-use development in Raleigh.
Around 2018 the developers decided to partner with Common Desk to put the Gaylord’s building to use. Lucien said the property had been on the market for a while, likely due to the extensive repairs needed, but East West Partners saw how they could make it work. It engaged Bowman Murray Hemingway Architects and Monteith Construction Corporation for the project.
The majority of the building was gutted during the renovations and a steel interior structure was installed to keep the original brick exterior intact. The history of the building was preserved throughout the design and decor.
The second and third floors feature a bay window overlooking North Front Street and the Cape Fear River. The window was an element of the original design of the early 1900s but was removed in the ‘70s.
“It’s a great blend of the original architecture and contemporary design,” Ellison said.
Old columns that used to run up the building now appear in the middle of Common Desk rooms. Wood salvaged from the original department store’s signage was reused. Centuries-old slacks of flooring were repurposed for shelves and stairways. The local woodworking nonprofit Kids Making It helped with reclaiming some of the archaic wood.
The extensive renovations took a little over a year.
A week before the opening on Jan. 18, Common Desk’s in-house design team modernized the then-empty space, taking advantage of the historic elements in that process, as well.
On the third floor, framed photographs of the old building hang on the wall.
“If you look at the façade now and the façade of like 1901, they did a great job,” Ellis said. “Just making it feel like historic and it’s supposed to be here, but also progressive and something new.”
Other artifacts found in the walls and ceilings while working on the building are now displayed on shelves: a made-in-Wilmington Coke bottle from 1897, browning Belk receipts, a man’s hat. (They even found a mannequin eyeball in the rafters.)
The space is intentionally bright and welcoming. It promotes interaction while simultaneously offering nooks and crannies where people can get away, Ellis explained.
There are “chat boxes,” or phone booths, scattered throughout the different floors so members can have a private phone conversation. When occupied, a light outside the door illuminates.
There are also conference rooms, which may be reserved by any member through the Common Desk app. Membership benefits also include access to any Common Desk location, from Wilmington to Raleigh to Dallas.
Members range from law students studying for the bar exam, to tech companies artists and writers. People from the construction industry or real estate agents secure desk spots as well.
“That’s what’s fun about coworking, you just get a variety of people in one space,” Ellis said, “versus like a large office of accountants.”
Common Desk staff is continuing to recruit companies and persuading them to post up downtown. One of the selling points of coworking is that a person can launch a solo business and expand as they add on employees, by renting larger spaces as the team grows.
So far Common Desk has about 15 of its 35 offices rented out.
“They’re slowly trickling in over the next couple of months,” Ellis said.
Coworking during Covid
It’s a positive sign that Common Desk is rising to the challenge of opening a coworking spot during Covid-19. The business model is based on collaboration, networking and shared resources – all of which have been on pause for the last year as people social distance and stay home.
Another coworking space focused on startups, tekMountain, closed its physical space off Military Cutoff Road due to the pandemic in June and shifted to a “virtual setting,” the Wilmington Business Journal reported.
Coworx in the Cargo District scaled down operations in the early summer, only allowing current members on its campus. It is largely back to normal now with safety protocols in place and masks enforced.
“People are working from home, and that was great for a couple of months, but then the reality of that for a lot of people kicked in,” Ellis said. “They’re like A. I can’t do this with my kids here; or B. I didn’t realize how much I needed community or how much the office environment gave me a healthy rhythm.”
People also realize they can do their job virtually or away from their physical offices in larger cities or metropolitan centers. Instead, they’re going to places they always wanted to live, like the warm North Carolina coast. Wilmington made the top seven on Updater’s list of places that gained the most residents through the pandemic.
The ultimate effects of Covid-19 on the commercial real estate industry and working environments are unclear. As offices sit empty while work persists, businesses are rethinking how and if they want to bring back employees or decentralize physical offices, especially with vaccination efforts underway. The coworking industry could regain its stride soon.
“There are a lot of new realities along those lines that will pan out over the next couple of years,” Ellis said. “It will be interesting.”
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