Wilmington’s Cargo District has attracted more attention in the past few years as restaurants and other businesses called the area home.
And the district, which includes parts of Queen, Castle, 15th, 16th and 17th streets, as well as Wrightsville Avenue, will be welcoming more dining options in the coming months as a food court development makes progress, said Cargo District developer Leslie Smith in late April.
The plans for the food court, likely to be named Cargo West, are still under review by the city of Wilmington, and they have gone through some revisions, Smith said, but will definitely still be using Cargo District’s hallmark building blocks and name inspiration – shipping containers.
“We wanted to keep all the trees that we could, and there are some rather large oaks there. So, we worked around the existing oak trees and started moving the containers instead of it just being this big, long wall of containers two stories high that had food in it,” Smith said of reconfiguring the plans. “It got very dynamic and gave us a height of about 44 feet, but it’s 18, 40-foot shipping containers.”
The food court planned at 615 S. 15th St. is expected to include seven restaurants (counting one that could be a slushie-type establishment) with a variety of food genres. But Smith also wants the area to offer even more than places to dine or grab a quick treat.
“The idea is to make it an atmosphere that everyone can enjoy,” Smith said. “We’ve got to figure out how to incorporate some fun and games in it so we’re working on that.”
A Cargo District hallmark restaurant Mess Hall outgrew its previous district location at 348 Hutcheson Lane and reopened April 14 at 2136 Wrightsville Ave., debuting new menu items alongside its burgers and tater tots. Smith bought 2136 Wrightsville in 2017.
Ruff Draft, a dog-friendly bar, opened next door in September 2022, and Beat Street, a street food concept by We Are True Blue restaurateur Bobby Zimmerman, opened later that year.
“Work on Beat Street began in 2016 when Zimmerman began compiling street food offerings from around the world into a database that now includes more than 3,000 dishes. This database provided a jumping-off point for Zimmerman and his team of chefs, who experimented with recipes to create Beat Street’s lineup,” stated a Greater Wilmington Business Journal story last year.
Zimmerman said in the story that the Beat Street concept “is all about exploration for myself, the chefs and whoever visits. We hope to be able to find really fun, cool, new things that nobody’s seen before in Wilmington.”
In April last year, Smith bought Delgado Square in the 2100 block of Wrightsville Avenue for $1.5 million with plans to revamp the 1970s shopping center.
“We’re doing a facelift to bring it up to what I would consider to be a modern look and that matches much of what the Cargo District already has,” Smith said. “We want it to be bright and we want it to be inviting.”
The purchase came with two other buildings, one of which is occupied by a print shop and the other by Legends Athletic Training at 1943 Kent St.
Those properties are also expected to get facelifts, Smith said, and he hopes the momentum brought about by the modernization projects will inspire others.
“I think what will happen is people will see what we’re doing, and they’ll continue to develop around us,” he said.
Smith said on April 27 that he expected Salita Pizza, a wood-fired pizza joint, to open in the coming days or weeks.
Existing establishments in the district have unique fans, he said.
“Everybody kind of has their flavor,” Smith said. “It’s funny, but as many places as there are, each of those places has a particular group of people that like to visit that particular business.”
In one of his earliest Cargo District projects, Smith built nine apartments made of shipping containers off 16th Street. New York investors bought the complex, Square 2, in 2021.
Smith said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of creating another residential development in the area.
“It’s a matter of procuring the land and making sure what we’re putting out there is a good product,” he said. “I would change it a little bit from what I did with Square 2, but if I did it, it would be something similar and I would definitely use shipping containers.”
Smith, has worked as a general contractor for more than two decades, starting L.S. Smith Inc. in Wilmington 17 years ago.
Having focused on multifamily construction during his career, Smith wanted to do something different, envisioning a unique community in Wilmington around what was then his Queen Street home.
Smith said he’s thought of the district as having an expanse from 15th Street all the way to Forest Hills, even with properties that don’t have to be owned by him.
“Cargo District is a registered trademark, but we’re just kind of relaxed about it,” Smith said, meaning that other establishments could use it without fuss.
He said he started buying property in the area around 2008 or 2009 with that vision in mind and was beginning to make the district a reality less than 10 years later.
“I always thought that it would be a very dynamic place, and I knew it would be something that I thought would grow on people and people would grow with it. In turn, it would grow with the community, and it has done just that,” Smith said. “I won’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, I never had a doubt.’ I will say that I always felt like it would be just fine. It was just a matter of continuing to push … and I just keep going.”