By Sarah Rankin
UNC Staff Writer
The Durham VOICE
When Wendy Clark founded Carpe Diem Cleaning in 1994, she had only one year of college under her belt and less than $100 in her pocket.
But she left Wake Forest University determined to start a business, generate wealth and then use that capital to give back to her community. Sixteen years later, Carpe Diem Cleaning employs 25 people and has a client base throughout the Triangle area.
Clark has now moved into the third part of her plan — impacting her community. Using her business’ success as a springboard, she launched her next venture: real estate development and social entrepreneurship in Northeast Central Durham.
“My desire is to help eliminate systemic poverty, and I believe that entrepreneurship is a key to that,” she said.
Clark partnered with developer and general contractor Chuck Lewis to form Lewis and Clark Community Developers, LLC. Their first project was the renovation of the John O’Daniel Hosiery Mill — a historic warehouse located at 801 Gilbert St. — into an affordable business center and resource for small businesses and nonprofits.
Clark said she and her sister were driving around one Sunday afternoon in October 2007 when she spotted the building, located about a mile from downtown Durham in the Cleveland-Holloway District.
“As soon as we pulled up, I knew it would be an entrepreneurial center,” she said.
Built around 1917 as a hosiery mill, the 14,520 square foot, two-story building had also served as a farmers’ cooperative and a Hispanic nightclub.
Clark says the warehouse took 2 1/2 years to renovate, a process that was recorded in the John O’Daniel Business Center blog. Now a tawny red color, the building features an all-brick façade; tall, arched windows; offices, meeting spaces and conference rooms for its occupants.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Clark said. “We have amazing tenants in there.”
Most of the building’s tenants are nonprofit organizations, including DurhamCares, AnimalKind, World Relief, Good Work and Child Evangelism Fellowship. Other tenants include seamstress Estella Bell, billing consultant Tasha Bell and, of course, Carpe Diem Cleaning.
Monthly rent for co-shared spaces in the building ranges from $175 to $225. Individual office monthly rent ranges from $295 to $695.
Clark said the center is more than just an office space. She said the business center is really about creating community and giving tenants access to new relationships, information and mindsets.
John Blake, executive director of Child Evangelism Fellowship, a nonprofit that works to spread Christianity to urban youth in Durham, said some people have compared the business center’s sense of community to living in a dorm.
“It’s sort of a central hub for a lot of activity, and that’s beyond what you pay for it. It’s definitely worth it,” he said.
Beth Livingstone, the executive director of AnimalKind — a nonprofit that works to prevent the unnecessary shelter euthanasia of cats and dogs by helping low-income families prevent accidental pet litters — says her organization was one of the first tenants in the center, moving in just as renovations were finishing in June 2009.
“The rent rate is well below market rates,” she said. “We looked at other available spaces and chose the John O’Daniel Exchange for reasons of character, community, location and price.”
The business center’s vacancy rate is currently about 20 percent. Brad Wiese, a commercial broker with Maverick Partners, says that while a vacancy rate of 20 percent is typical for the Triangle, it is impressive that Clark has reached 80 percent occupancy starting with an empty building in an area that has historically been a depressed industrial and residential area, not an office park.
“I think her trajectory is outstanding,” he said.
Not only does Clark work in Northeast Central Durham, but she is a resident of the neighborhood as well. She moved from Woodcroft, near the Streets at Southpoint, to Northeast Central Durham because she realized change had to come from the inside, on a personal level.
“I love it here,” she said. “We have a half acre of land, and we’re working on gardens. I know our neighbors; they know me. There’s community here.”