Saturday, February 4, 2023

Expanded coworking space, new bar sets the stage for food hall and more in Cargo District

Azalea Station and Coworx building number two are the latest additions to the Cargo District. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Growth and expansion are on the rise in 2023 in the Cargo District. 

Its anchor coworking space, Coworx, has doubled in size and will take up multiple locations across the Cargo District. With it will come a new bar, Azalea Station, at 1502 Castle St.

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Cargo District developer Leslie Smith has been buying up land from Castle and 15th Street, up to Wrightsville Avenue, over the last decade to expand the footprint of the Cargo District. He is in the process of purchasing the Azalea Station building.

The 12,000-square-feet space was formerly a Boys and Girls Club of America and before that the Azalea Station Post Office. The back of it will lead into a yet-to-be-named food hall that’s been in the works for more than a year.

The goal is to have six or so restaurants — walk-up windows, essentially — housed out of 40-foot shipping containers. It’s part of the design aesthetic, and namesake, for the Cargo District: upcycling cargo containers into usable structures.

“But we are still working with the city on those plans,” Smith said.

On top of the restaurants will be additional offices for Coworx members.

The coworking memberships have expanded by more than half since Smith’s son, Noah, and partner Ariel Garcia purchased the business from Smith, Christian Cardamone and Strider Shanks last fall. 

There were 25 members at Coworx’s first location at 1608 Queen St. upon the takeover. Within a month, it ballooned to 60 members. Noah associates the growth with pinpointed networking.

He attended numerous organization meetings, such as with Wilmington Area Hospitality Association and Wilmington Downtown Business Alliance, as well as met with other local business people to garner ideas on growth. 

“I spoke to the director of ILM about advertising through the airport and worked with the community manager at Common Desk downtown, who recommends us when they’re full,” Noah said. “It’s all about connections.”

Coworx’s first building was bursting at the seams with members to fill its 14 offices and approximately 20 hot desks (desks people can rent to work at, which aren’t enclosed). Noah said many were traveling gig workers, such as photographers, who only come in to edit photos occasionally. Thus, it never felt too overcrowded. 

Once the Boys and Girls Club on Castle Street became available, it allowed those who wanted more privacy an opportunity to upgrade. The second Coworx building at 1502 Castle St. location is outfitted with an additional 24 offices and 30 hot desks. 

Only five offices remain open.

“We didn’t even announce it,” Noah said. “Just from people hearing about it, I would say a little over half of the members in the current building wanted to either advance their membership to use both buildings or move their offices to the new space because of their own growth.”

It’s not new for a business to move in, expand, sometimes rapidly, before finding a larger space to grow into in the greater Cargo District area. 

Creature Theory, a branding and design agency founded by Matt Ebbing, is one example. It was one of the first businesses in Coworx, starting in a small office with two employees before taking over 1607 Queen St., Unit 202. It now employs eight people, with a four-deep “circle of experts,” advising on branding for food and beverage industry clients, including locals like Boombalattis, Tama Tea and End of Days — another Cargo District business located in a quonset hut on Castle Street behind the ABC store.

Noah said having larger anchored businesses, like End of Days, Bull City Ciderworks and the True Blue brand — which will launch Beat Street at 348 Hutchison Lane — creates an internal hub of relationships and built-in synergy.

“That’s what we want to do: help businesses grow, give opportunity back to them,” Noah said. “A small business is looking for connections. We have connections — with the city and other community partners. We have the ability to hold events and have those people come to the businesses to have conversations. So I feel like that’s what attracts people to Coworx.”

Drinx moved to Delgado Square from Queen Street in October. The new business is located in another section of the Cargo District, extending along Wrighstville Avenue to Forest Hills. (Courtesy Drinx)

‘The Cargo shuffle’

The incubator of startups was the first brick-and-mortar to open in the Cargo District in 2016. Seven years later, the district’s six-block radius, along 15th, 16th and 17th streets, up Queen and Castle, reaching to Wrightsville, has roughly 85 businesses.

“And that’s probably being modest,” Smith said. 

His original vision when launching the district was for it to have a heavy residential imprint. But as interest grew for commercial needs — the area is zoned mixed-use — Smith switched his outlook.

“It just seemed it was contrary to everything I felt was needed in the area: to tear down existing structures just to build new ones,” Smith said.

He would have had to raze the quonset hut (Alcove) at Hutchison Lane and multiple surrounding properties — such as where Homegrown Market and Bottles is located, as well as a strip of retail shops nearby — to build apartments. 

“These buildings got a lot of life left,” Smith said. “And I think that’s what we’re proving. They absolutely can be reused, repurposed, and we put containers in many to keep with the brand.”

He has only torn down one house on Castle Street to construct a container home, now an Airbnb.

Smith — who also owns the contracting company LS Smith Inc. — is still considering infill areas for housing. He put in the first cargo container apartment complex beside the first Coworx building in 2018 and sold it to Cargo District Rentals, a Manhattan company, in April 2021. 

“The truth is, there’s just so many commercial projects,” he said. “I’m inundated. Right now, if we get a project a month, it would take me the next three years to catch up.”

Smith has renovated at least a dozen buildings in the area. The first was the quonset hut that became Alcove, shared with a second outpost of Bespoke Coffee. The latter closed before welcoming Mess Hall in 2019. 

Founder Sam Steger grew the burger joint to where it was churning out 450 handhelds a day. He and Smith are preparing to open the relocated 3,000-square-foot restaurant at 2156 Wrighstville Ave.

“Hopefully, we will have Mess Hall opened by March,” Smith said, confirming they have had to do redesigns. 

Mess Hall originally was going to combine a dog bar and restaurant all in one. When the space next door to the restaurant became available, Steger told Port City Daily in the fall it made sense to keep the two businesses separate due to health code and regulations.

“We already have problems with people trying to bring in dogs at the current Mess Hall,” he said. “So I could already see problems with the messaging if we were opening a dog park at a restaurant and bar, and explaining to people dogs could only be allowed outside, not inside the restaurant.” 

Steger launched Ruff Draft in Delgado Square in August, four months after Smith bought the strip mall. The complex can house another handful of businesses in the area and expands the Cargo District corridor near Forest Hills.

“Initially, I told the city, if you want to connect Forest Hills with downtown, you’re gonna need a bridge,” Smith remembered back to the project’s early days. “If you let me build your bridge out of shipping containers, I’ll help. We have already filled six blocks.”

Last Stop — an apparel and Nike rebuild shop — will move into Delgado Square. The company got its start in a 150-square-foot container, before moving into DesignWorx at 707 S. 16th St., an area dedicated to artisan and maker space in the Cargo District. 

“We call it the Cargo Shuffle,’” said April Walker, who owns Drinx, located next door to Last Stop. 

It’s the one constant in the Cargo District: Everything remains in flux. 

Drinx opened at 1605 Queen St. on Jan. 4 last year in a 300-square-foot container. Ten months later April and her husband, Joey, quadrupled the size of their plant-based energy drink operation at 2162 Wrightsville Ave. 

“My dream was to have a drive-thru, inside seating and plenty of parking for my customers,” Walker said, “and so this space that I’m in now was able to accommodate it all.”

Drinx moved into Delgado Square in October and Walker said it now can expand its menu, adding more Lotus drinks as well as acai bowls. She’s also adding onto the menu with more vegan options, such as a homemade “chicken” salad that has gained popularity. Walker has to change Drinx permitting to allow more food.

“Hopefully, that will be done in the next few weeks when we have our grand re-opening and ribbon cutting Jan. 28,” she said.

Also coming to Delgado Square is Paradigm Fitness Performance, Smith confirmed. A Covid-19 testing location out of California signed a one-year contract to handle all coronavirus testing for the film industry and local studios. A prop builder for the studios also has rented a space.

The back of Azalea Station and the second Coworx building, which will open up into a food court, coming to the Cargo District. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Castle Street

At the opposite end of the corridor, at the newly renovated, second Coworx building on Castle Street, there will be a 100-plus capacity, full ABC-permitted bar, Azalea Station. It’s slated to open by late winter or early spring.

It will have 70 or 80 seats, with plans being considered to include an events venue. It was part of the original design idea Azalea Station owner Billy Batten had when opening Alcove first in the district. 

“Alcove gets reached out to on a monthly basis from people wanting to rent it out — weddings, bat mitzvahs, conferences,” Batten said. “There’s totally a demand there, but I could never really capitalize on it because I have roommates in that building. Out of fairness to them, I would never do that.”

Alcove operates in the back of Beat Street. The tables scattered about the space seat both diners and drinkers for either business. 

Batten opened Alcove two months before the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered it for a year. 

“We were very fortunate to weather that storm,” he said. 

Since, operations have taken off. He pinpoints it to the growth of business in the Cargo District, including numerous art and commerce markets that take place. 

Smith said the district itself began ballooning at the height of Covid-19 in 2020 because of all the open land he had, which allowed for businesses to expand more to outdoor dining and drinking or sidewalk sales for its many retail spaces. It also opened the door for outdoor markets. 

“It was one of the only ways you could social distance properly,” Smith said.

Art markets and sidewalk sales continue the first Sunday of every month from noon to 4 p.m. 

“And they continue to help with business, just like the community aspect,” Walker said. “When I share something on social media, and then my neighbor’s business shares something, my followers and their followers see our stuff, and in that way we help build up each other.”

The creation of foot traffic is central to success.

More than a dozen businesses are open in the vicinity of Azalea Station. The 5,000-square-foot bar will be indoor and outdoor, with the planned food hall coming behind the building. It’s located a hundred feet or so away from Alcove’s back patio. The close distance isn’t concerning to Batten.

“I’m a firm believer in commerce brings more commerce,” he noted. “I think the more walkable traffic you bring into an area, the better it is for everyone.”

Azalea Station will maintain a similar industrial vibe that peppers the Cargo District, also enlivened by murals that resident artist Lauren Yates has done at locations nearby, from the Starling Bar to Bull City Ciderworks. Aside from the Azalea Station logo mural, there will be a map of the Cargo District, identifying places for visitors to dine, drink and shop. Another will include a play off azaleas to reflect the name.

The space has four-top wooden tables, along with a wooden bar top, surrounded by multiple “living walls.” Essentially, planters will be affixed to the walls, filled with foliage to cover the space. They’re being installed by Sarah Mertz from Plant Outpost, also located in the Cargo District. 

Much like Alcove, Azalea Station will close by midnight.

“When the food court comes, we’ll probably adjust our hours to open at lunchtime,” Batten said. “Now, we’re going to open from two o’clock on.”

Azalea Station will serve spirits, focusing on local distilleries and other popular liquor, yet the offerings will be centered on classic, affordable cocktails. 

“I don’t want to have places that alienate people,” Batten said, taking a cue from his other bars. Batten operated Charley Brownz downtown for years before taking over Growlers, an underground bar at 21 N. Front St.

He said, while there will be localized craft brews on tap, there will also be domestic beers to appeal to all palates, as well as an increased wine selection.

Azalea Station will be located in the middle of the new, second Coworx building. It also will serve coffee, specifically cold brew on draft, from Blue Roastery, operating only a few feet away.

“The foot traffic and offices are popping up everywhere, every day; it’s exciting,” Batten said. “It’s a cool area, and I feel like it’s just kind of like the tip of the iceberg of what’s happening over here.”

Smith said at some point, though, he may want to scale back.

“We got enough property,” he said. 

After a short pause, he added: “But if something pops up, I’m not saying, if it’s a deal, I’m not gonna take it.”

[The article has been update to correct New Roastery to Blue Roastery and include Azalea Station will have indoor and outdoor seating; PCD regrets the errors.]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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