A salute to spring

2018 Azalea Queen Beth Troutman enters the Garden Party in Wilmington, N.C. | Courtesy N.C. Azalea Festival & Blueberry Creative

WILMINGTON — The 2018 N.C. Azalea Festival came to a close on Sunday, and visitors to Wilmington likely traveled home with tired feet and the beginnings of their summer tan. The annual event, which celebrated its 71st year, kicked of on Wednesday and attendees walked, dance, and paraded their way through the Port City for five days of street festivals, garden parties, concerts, home tours and food.

While the official numbers for the festival are always an estimate due to the open environment and numerous nonticketed events, festival Executive Director Alison English said the festival was well attended.

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“The street fair has never been that busy in the last 25 years,” said English. “The weather helped with that, it was gorgeous.”

The festival, which has a mission of promoting tourism and economic growth for Wilmington, features signature events each day and top-notch concerts. This year, English said that concerts — featuring country singer Billy Currington, rock band 38 Special and rapper Ludacris — drew almost 6,000 to each show.

The Airlie Garden Party — considered by many to be the signature event of the entire festival — was brimming with around 2,900 guests. The event is a spectacle of Southern hospitality, food and spring style, and features Old North State VIPs and eastern N.C. barbecue from Bill’s Barbecue in Wilson. This year, special guests included the Azalea Queen, Cabarrus County native and TV personality Beth Troutman, N.C. first lady Kristin Cooper, Miss North Carolina 2018 Victoria Huggins, blogger and eastern N.C. native Adrian H. Wood, and Secretary of Cultural and Natural Resources Susi Hamilton.

The Garden Party opened with the arrival of Troutman, who was saluted by the Summerall Guards, the premier drill unit of The Citadel. The guards, dressed in their formal “salt and pepper” dress uniforms, performed their “Citadel Series” close-order drill to a silent cadence. Troutman, who began her official duties on Wednesday, was the star of the party.

“She was amazing. So humble and excited and proud,” said English of Troutman. “We look to somebody who is a role model and who has a history that can be shared with the community.”

Following the opening, cadets from the Virginia Military Institute escorted the eight members of the Queen’s Court – young ladies selected by the Azalea Festival to represent the entire state — into Airlie Gardens.

According to English, the business aspects of the festival were as good as the weather.

“Sponsorships were up this year,” she said. “We had a lot of great support from corporate and community partners.”

According to a 2011 study conducted by UNCW, the Azalea Festival has a $50 million impact on the Wilmington economy. However, English says that number now sits an estimated $70 million due to the growth of the festival’s offerings, including the concerts which have doubled in size since the 2011 study.

The festival is known for long-running events like the Garden Party and street fair, but also has lesser-known events that have been a part of the festival for decades. That includes a boxing competition, organized by Port City Boxing and supported by the festival, that draws from seven states and awards youth and adult contestants with belts and medals for their feats.

This year’s festival also had several news additions.

“We added an event before the coronation called the Queen’s Tea,” said English. “This gave people an opportunity to have a more intimate setting with the queen. The queen’s court and Miss North Carolina attended, and it provided a smaller, more low-key setting.”

Eyecare provider Wilmington Eye sponsored a new children’s area focused on engagement with attendees. UNCW’s Marine Quest was there to demonstrate underwater robotics. Mike from Monsters Inc. was on hand to interact with kids. Colgate offered dental screenings, Wilmington Eye provided free eye exams, and N.C.-based grocer Lowe’s Food handed out free healthy snacks.

“Kids had fun and the health screenings for the community at large,” said English.

English, who started working for the festival 13 years ago as office manager and took over the director duties three years ago, said she and the festival staff took a day off on Monday to recover from the marathon week and were back at work Tuesday wrapping up loose ends and beginning the planning for next year’s festival.