WILMINGTON — The onset of spring means warmer temperatures, longer days, and the beginning of some of the area’s best outdoor festivals and family-oriented entertainment offerings. However, this year is sure to look different for event organizers in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and social distancing restrictions still in effect across much of the state. The leadership team behind the iconic and crowd-pleasing North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington say they are happy to announce they will indeed host a festival in 2021 but will spread things out and celebrate over the course of the year instead of the traditional five-day jam-packed schedule. The plan includes hosting an amended lineup of events and programming in April (including the art unveiling, azaleas on tour, parades, and the crowning of the Azalea Queen), with the street fair and Main Stage musical acts scheduled for later this summer. Canceled events include the Scholarship Pageant, Boxing Competition, and Riverwalk Shaggin’ Contest.
This year’s large events will again include major performers that draw crowds such as Sublime with Rome, Michael Franti & Spearhead, and the Avett Brothers, however this year these will take place later in the summer and will be held at the city’s new musical venue, the North Waterfront Park. “The Azalea Festival has an over $50 million economic impact annually,” said Alison English, the festival’s executive director. “We know those large events are the biggest drivers of those, so it’s our hope that by pushing those later in the year, we’ll still be able to have those events and the community will benefit from that. That economic stimulus gets put back into our restaurants, our businesses and our hotels which we all need so much, especially during this time.”
Figuring out the right balance between restricting public activity and keeping businesses going has been a nationwide challenge for decisionmakers over the last year. There is an ongoing debate surrounding full lockdowns that stop the spread of the virus, versus allowing businesses to reopen and boost the local economy. Last year, the 73rd annual Azalea Festival was called off in March due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. English says COVID has completely flipped the events industry upside down. “Our whole purpose is to gather people together to celebrate our communities. The pandemic and restrictions on public gatherings has forced our industry to re-create, re-present, and find ways to re-engage with our guests.”
“I wish I had a Magic 8 ball to know when events will return ‘like normal,’ but I know when they do, we’ll be ready for them and the celebration will be HUGE!” — Alison English, Executive Director, NC Azalea Festival
Despite things looking different this year, the annual gathering has been around for so many years it has a built-in, loyal fanbase still happy to lend their support to even an abridged version of the festival. The NC Azalea Festival is the largest of its kind in the state. Founded in 1948, it has emerged as Wilmington’s premier event. The gathering’s concerts, fairs and special events are attended by an estimated 300,000 people. Everywhere the blooming azaleas offer colorful testimony to the rich heritage of the Coast.
The NCAF’s mission is to encourage volunteerism and civic participation as it contributes to the region’s economy. UNC-Wilmington completed a year-long study in 2011 on the economic impact the Azalea Festival has on the City of Wilmington and the region. Results of this study concluded that the Azalea Festival has an over $50,000,000 annual impact on the local community.
Event organizers say due to last year’s canceled festival there have been a number of logistical hurdles to overcome such as what to do about existing paid ticket holders. For instance, existing paid ticket holders for the Avett Brothers will be given two weeks to select which Avett show they would like to attend this year. Selection will be based on a first-come, first-served priority. The new venue has a smaller capacity; once a show nears maximum capacity all ticket exchanges for that show will be halted, and ticket holders will automatically be moved to the other show or given a refund if requested. Sublime with Rome | Michael Franti & Spearhead PAID ticket holders do not need to do anything to have their tickets moved to the August date, unless they would like to purchase an upgraded experience.
A complete line-up of festival events are outlined on the group’s website, ncazaleafestival.org. Attendees can also stay connected via the festival’s e-newsletter and social media accounts, which includes a new festival TikTok account. English says the festival team which includes over 120 volunteers in leadership positions and staff have been working throughout the pandemic to plan this year’s celebration. “We still have so much to celebrate; we just have to find creative ways to do so safely. In some ways, this has been really exciting and energizing; an opportunity to think outside the box and dream and plan differently.”