NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington have both granted an ask from the Azalea Festival for a $35,000 boost in funding to expand this year’s celebration.
The total $70,000 will offset the cost of bringing in a nationally touring act, in addition to the three concerts it’s already announced for the 2022 festival. The funds will help bring down the price of tickets to around $5 to $10 and gift around 400 tickets to health care workers to express gratitude for their perseverance throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Per its contract with artists, the festival cannot announce the name of the headliner at this time, or before a marketing plan is in place. The festival’s director Alison Baringer hinted to commissioners it is a “group that’s been on TV the past, probably, 10 weeks,” appropriate for family entertainment.
County commissioners approved the request Monday morning, and city council endorsed its share at its Feb. 1 meeting.
The request is said to be a one-time ask to add to the celebration of the festival’s 75th year. Organizers believe this milestone is particularly special given the “return to normal.” In 2020 the festival was called off because of the pandemic, just hours after the governor told the entire state to cancel all gatherings of over 100 people.
In 2021, the festival returned, but most events were smaller, more socially distanced occasions. Other happenings, such as the garden party and concerts, were pushed back four months after the festival’s April origination.
Festival director Baringer told commissioners planning for the anniversary started back in 2018, but Covid-19 halted the events industry. She pointed out the festival did not rake in any revenue for a year and a half.
“We need to get that festival back on the right rails, and this would be a good way for us to show our support and help,” councilman Charles Rivenbark said during the Feb. 1 meeting.
Of the 11 officials who voted across the two bodies, councilman Luke Waddell and Neil Anderson were the only two to oppose the use of taxpayer money. (Chair Julia Olson-Boseman was absent from the commissioners’ vote.)
“I do have concerns with the City of Wilmington appropriating taxpayer funds for a non-government function,” Waddell explained. “I think this may set a precedent for continued funding for the Azalea Festival. They may come back, year over year. $35,000, with some of the other things we’re seeing, it may not look like a lot of money, but it is a lot of money.”
Waddell, who serves on the festival committee, suggested the money could be better used elsewhere. The newest member of council, Waddell has described himself as fiscally conservative.
Meanwhile, Anderson questioned the financial pledge being split equally between the county and city. He said city residents are paying double.
Others, like councilman Kevin Spears, communicated their support of the event. Spears called it a wise investment. The festival’s economic impact each year exceeds $50 million, according to a 2011 UNCW study.
On the commissioners’ end, the request wasn’t heavily questioned. It earned unanimous support.
Called a “community give back” event,” the Wednesday night show will help kick off the festival, slated to take place Apr. 6 at Riverfront Park, after the Azalea Festival Queen’s coronation. DJ Bigg B from Coast 97.3 and East Coast Community Choir, a gospel choir made up of local churches in Wilmington, will perform prior to the headliner taking the stage.
Concerts by REO Speedwagon, Brantley Gilbert, and Cypress Hill also will take place at Live Oak Bank Pavilion. The parade, home and garden tours, street fair and other events are planned over five days across the city.
Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org