Wilmington has made great strides in the last 18 months to grow its startup community, and plenty of activity has come as a result.
But so far, these efforts have been spread around various parts of town—fast-growing Next Glass, nCino and the newly public Live Oak Bank have been in Midtown, Cloudwyze in Leland, tekMountain in the Mayfaire area, and the UNCW Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE) near the college.
Soon, both Next Glass and Cloudwyze will move to downtown Wilmington. They will join Elite Innovations’ new downtown space and the monthly startup events that Jim Roberts has been holding at Ironclad Brewery. All this activity begs the questions, will downtown Wilmington become our coastal region’s tech hub? Why are these companies focusing on downtown?
History Repeats Itself
While many city leaders may not want to talk about it, up until the 1970s, downtown Wilmington was an area of ill-repute, with drugs, prostitution and other crime. In more recent years, downtown has been known by the locals as an area with too many bars, and crime issues related to those bars. But those issues have been addressed with investments and time, and downtown has shifted into a nice, historic area that serves as a tourist magnet. Now businesses seem to want to locate there as well, giving the area a strong combination of business, history and nightlife.
To get a feel for the startup movement downtown, I talked with local business leaders—Ed Wolver of Wilmington Downtown Inc., real estate developer John Hinnant with Maus Warwick Matthews as well as representatives of Next Glass and Cloudwyze. Commonly cited themes are that it’s a vibrant area with a diversity of restaurants and entertainment options that people can walk to and from all their activities. The growth of Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) has added energy to the area and the 1,500 seat CFCC theater (think, a smaller DPAC) opening this fall adds to downtown’s cultural offerings.
Wolverton argues that startups and downtown are not a new combination, that entrepreneurs have always been attracted to Wilmington’s combination of historic buildings, funky industrial spaces and modern buildings. In the past, they’ve just been lower profile companies. Next Glass has earned national headlines, investors and major retail partners for its app that uses science and data to predict an individual’s wine or beer preferences. And Cloudwyze is an angel-backed IT and cloud infrastructure startup with customers around the nation.
Downtown matches well with the 24-7 environment in which many startups operate, says Wolverton. Downtown can meet commercial, residential, recreational and cultural needs all in one place. In essence, it can easily serve as the social center for individuals with many different interests, but who spend a lot of time at work.
According to Hinnant, who jokes that he is a startup specialist after doing deals with Next Glass, baby bottle maker Mimijumi and retailer Outdoor Equipped, it’s partially economics as downtown lease rates are fairly priced in comparison to the rest of the market. He points out that the UNCW CIE was originally planned to be downtown until a good real estate deal became available near the college.
Startup Factory??: The Startup Factory representatives have visited Wilmington at least twice over the past two months. They are hosting a bootcamp in Winston-Salem next week. Are they exploring our town for boot camp opportunities or something beyond that?
So what will be next? According to Hinnant, there will be additional cultural amenities, with 3-5 more brewery openings and a potential boutique grocery store. There are also plenty of additional buildings that could be attractive to startups.
According to Shaun Olsen, CEO of Cloudwyze, “Restaurants, coffee houses, wine bars and bottle shops—and of course the RiverWalk—all provide ample opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals and get the kind of encouragement that helps you build that next big dream.”
Many people have a dream for continued progress in downtown Wilmington—if the trend continues, startups could be its next big growth driver.