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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Fraternal Organizations, Other Groups Hold On To Communal Spaces

By Emma Dill, posted Apr 4, 2024
Nick Benson, bingo chairman at the Wilmington Moose Lodge No. 343, helps to run the organization's Friday night bingo March 8. The group built its current lodge on Carolina Beach Road in 1985. (Photos by Madeline Gray & Aris Harding)
Roots run deep for many fraternal organizations, sororities and social groups in Wilmington and across the Cape Fear region. 

Members chartered Elks Lodge No. 532 in Wilmington in 1899. The group’s original charter still hangs in a frame above the door of its meeting room inside the Elks Lodge on Oleander Drive.  

After receiving the charter, the Elks first met in a downtown building before moving into the nearby Dudley Mansion at 400 S. Front St., according to Bob Shields, who’s been a member of the lodge for more than two decades. Starting in April, Shields will also serve as the group’s next “exalted ruler,” elected by lodge members. 

The original group’s downtown “temple” is long gone, Shields said. The Elks moved out to 5102 Oleander Drive at a time when there wasn’t much in the area except trees, he added. 

In the roughly 50 years since, development has transformed the landscape along Oleander Drive and other major corridors throughout the Wilmington area. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in the city of Wilmington alone climbed by nearly 14,000 between 2010 and 2022, the most recent population estimate. 

That uptick in residents in Wilmington and throughout the Cape Fear region has helped fuel new apartment complexes and commercial projects. But even as development grows up around them, many of Wilmington’s fraternal groups, sororities and social organizations are holding onto the buildings that have been gathering spaces for generations of members and area residents. 

GATHERING SPOT

The Elks first secured land along Oleander Drive in 1970, according to property records, with additional land purchased in 1980 and 1987. The group’s nearly 10,000-square-foot lodge was built in 1971 on just over 5 acres, records show. 

The building’s interior, which features an expansive hall, hosts bingo on Monday nights and can be rented for weddings and vendor fairs. Shields said an outside group typically rents it out about once a week. 

The lodge also includes a social area with a bar, a game room and a formal meeting room, where the group holds member meetings on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. The names of members who have died are etched in stone on plaques that cover the room’s walls. 

During meetings, members sit in theater-style seats around the room while the lodge’s exalted ruler and those in other top positions lead the meeting from the room’s center, Shields explained.  

The group, which has close to 500 members, has invested in minor improvements in recent years, such as adding a digital sign along Oleander Drive to advertise events. “Basically, some facial changes more than anything else,” Shields said. “And so, with that, we’re looking at now moving to the inside and start doing some work in here.”  

WITHIN RANGE 

By far, the biggest change in the area’s scenery is the ongoing construction of The Range on Oleander, a project set to include more than 340 apartments and about 12,000 square feet of commercial space. 

Crews are working on the complex, developed by Chapel Hill-based East West Partners, on about 15 acres next to the Elks Lodge. The site at 5026 Oleander Drive formerly held a golf driving range and is bordered on one side by Wilmington Municipal Golf Course. 

The construction towers over the neighboring Elks Lodge. When the project was first announced, it was a cause for concern among some members, Shields said, but the group was able to negotiate with the developers, making it a win-win for both parties. 

The Elks are allowing project contractors to store materials and equipment on the land at the back of their lot. Once the project is complete, developers have agreed to install a new power station for the motorhomes and buses of the “traveling Elk” who occasionally park at the site. 

“We’ll have the larger amperage services for the larger buses back there,” Shields said. “We’re currently sitting right at the edge of what they need.”  

CONSIDERING OFFERS 

Shields said several of the contractors working on the project have even become lodge members and have supported the group’s needs during its construction. 

“Everything that we’ve asked for, they’ve either worked with us, or they said, ‘We’ll help you take care of that,’” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have them as neighbors, let’s put it like that.” 

About five years ago, before work started on the Range, developers offered to buy the Elks Lodge, Shields said. Even though the group was “actively” looking for another building, members shot their offer down. 

“There were several places that we took a look at that … money-wise they just didn’t pan out to where it was going to be beneficial for us to move,” Shields said. 

That hasn’t been the only offer the group has gotten. 

“We have had offers on the building, and we’re holding on,” Shields said, “because basically, besides up the road where Casey’s (Buffet) is, this is about the only piece of property right here that’s left on the market for development.”

The Elks Lodge has a focus on service, Shields said. Members volunteer to deliver Meals on Wheels, put together Christmas baskets for families in need and collect canned goods, among other things. Across town, Loyal Order of the Moose members also have a similar service-minded purpose, hosting fundraisers, collection drives, along with an array of social events, including bingo, trivia and local band performances.

On Carolina Beach Road, the Moose Lodge is hanging on to their long-time building despite ongoing development along the corridor.  

The Moose Lodge was chartered in Wilmington in 1937 and first met downtown over a pool hall at the corner of Front and Market streets, said Pam Fiske, lodge president and the group’s first female leader.   

The lodge then moved to a building at Third and Grace streets in the 1940s. When they were unable to make payments on the building, they moved to a rented space on Eastwood Road before purchasing the former Famous Club restaurant on Carolina Beach Road, Fiske said. 
According to property records, the group acquired its current site at 4610 Carolina Beach Road in 1977 and built the lodge in 1985. They later added a roughly 3,400-square-foot “social wing” with a bar, room for tables and a small stage.  

Today, the lodge has just over 12,000 square feet under its roof. That includes an expansive hall that hosts weekly bingo and the group’s meetings and can be rented out for events, said lodge member Nick Benson.  

While Fiske said development pressures have largely spared the Moose Lodge, the possibility of selling isn’t unheard of. 

“A few years ago, we had several members who said we ought to sell the lodge property, and we’ll buy and build a whole brand-new building,” Benson said. “They decided at that time that the property wasn’t valuable enough to try to build a whole new building and give up what we have here.” 

From Fiske’s perspective, the uptick in growth has brought in new members as people move to Wilmington from other parts of the country. The 600-member lodge is working to recruit younger, more active members. She said the lodge’s location along a well-traveled stretch of Carolina Beach Road helps with the group’s visibility.  

















(Bob Shields, a long-time member of Elks Lodge No. 532, stands in front of ongoing construction at The Range on Oleander. The apartment complex is going up on land adjacent to the lodge.)


FINDING A BETTER FIT 

In downtown Wilmington, Alpha Psi Omega, the Wilmington chapter of historically African American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, is facing its own real estate strife – the group has outgrown its meeting place. 

The Wilmington group, chartered in 1932, purchased a two-story home at the corner of Red Cross Street and Fifth Avenue in 1982, said current chapter president Onya Gardner. Before buying the house, the group’s members would meet in each other’s living rooms. 

But more than 40 years later, the group no longer fits inside the home. 

“Formally, we now have 80 members. So, if you’re looking at the house on Red Cross Street,” Gardner said, “you know that there’s no way that we can fit the majority of our membership into that space.” 

They instead host their chapter meetings at Brunswick Community College’s Leland Center, where Gardner serves as dean of continuing education and workforce development. 

Gardner said they still use the home, which is adorned with AKA letters, for certain initiatives, such as collecting food or packing donation bags. The home’s high visibility near downtown and the evolving Brooklyn Arts District has made the group a presence in the community. 

“Visibility is so important, and so there may be people who drive by and say, ‘Yes, that’s the AKA house.’ There’ll be others who drive by and say, ‘What is AKA?’ The visibility can connect to those who are familiar and those who are not familiar,” she said. 

But they need a larger, likely commercial space to house their meetings and facilitate ongoing initiatives. Getting a larger building is one of the group’s long-term goals. 

“Planning is critical to that. That’s not going to happen in the next year,” she said. “Maybe in the next three to five years, if it’s planned right, we can have that commercial building.”
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