What might have seemed like a risky proposition for downtown Wilmington has proven to be a major asset, officials say.
Coworking facility Common Desk has a full roster of tenants and, nearly two-and-a-half years after its January 2021 opening, has helped nurture more than 150 ventures of all sizes, according to McKay Siegel, a partner with East West Partners. His firm has its Wilmington office in Common Desk.
East West purchased the empty, boarded-up Gaylord Building at 226 N. Front St. in 2018 and hired Monteith Construction to renovate it into a hub for companies that needed anything from one desk to a suite of offices.
“We bought the building as a coworking concept,” East West partner McKay Siegel said Wednesday, adding that the assumption was that WeWork would run the place. The letter of intent between East West and WeWork was terminated, however, as the coworking company ran into major headwinds in late 2019.
Meanwhile, Siegel said, the market for office space in downtown Wilmington wasn’t so hot, either. But East West contacted Texas-based coworking management company Common Desk and convinced it to take a chance on the new space. East West owns the building and the furnishings, but Common Desk manages it and lends its brand. So far, Siegel continued, things have panned out.
Common Desk is attracted to downtown sites, Common Desk Wilmington’s manager Aaron Ellis said in 2021.
At that time, Ellis said that most of Common Desk’s 19 locations – all except two of which are in Texas – were situated in downtowns, and that Wilmington’s Front Street location fit that model. Common Desk likes environments where “scrappy enterprises are coming together, creating something big together, revitalizing,” he said.
Common Desk, in fact, has proven so successful at its selection and management of coworking facilities that it became an irresistible target for acquisition by a revived and solvent WeWork last year.
"Common Desk has established itself as one of the country’s premier boutique flex space providers, with a strong local brand known for its beautifully designed spaces and exceptional member experience,” stated WeWork officials in a news release in January 2022.
The facility offers four levels of accommodation for its members.
“At the very entry level, there’s a shared desk membership, where you walk in with your laptop,” Siegel said. “You have Wi-Fi, coffee, beer, and access to our conference rooms but you don’t leave anything behind when you leave for the day. We’re not to capacity on that level yet.
“The next level is a dedicated desk: you occupy the same desk and have a filing cabinet that locks,” Siegel continued. “You can leave stuff here. It’s nice, because you get to know all the other people in the building. Then we have private offices that accommodate one to 10 people, and we have three big suites that are 20-person.”
Common Desk provides office utilities, a printer, a business address and a place to hold meetings. It’s also a community, Siegel said.
“There are about 10 events a month, small to large,” he said. “You meet people, talk to people in other disciplines.”
Common Desk has been a boon to downtown and an importanat resource for startups and small businesses, said Christina Haley, vice president of Wilmington Downtown Inc.
"This coworking space has been a tremendous asset for our community in bringing entrepreneurs and business owners to a downtown hub," she said Thursday, noting that Wilmington Downtown Inc. moved into the facility in 2021. "Some [tenants] have outgrown their space and moved, but their offices have been quickly filled. I believe [Common Desk] is pretty much full with a waiting list. It's been great for us as an organization to be surrounded by such great businesses whose growth contributes to and stimulates downtown Wilmington's economy.”
As Haley said, several young companies have occupied offices in Common Desk until, like Lumos Data, they outgrew them and moved elsewhere in town. Other companies rent at Common Desk while they search for a permanent home or, like Guy C. Lee Building Materials, wait for a permanent headquarters to be built.
Siegel laments the fact that several Common Desk alumni have not been able to find suitable office space downtown, so have relocated to the Mayfaire submarket or other areas.
“We would like them to stay downtown,” he said. “All the big downtown events and festivals and so forth are okay, but you’ve got to have daytime, lunch traffic for downtown to make sense.”