WILMINGTON — White vendor tents, fair foods and crowds won’t fill the streets of downtown Wilmington as they usually do during this year’s North Carolina Azalea Festival. In its 75th year, festival organizers are moving the street fair to a northern parking lot, as opposed to lining Water, Front, Market, and 2nd streets.
All the action will be set up in the Cape Fear Community College Schwartz Center lot, where the Azalea Festival used to host its main stage. The lot is adjacent to the Wilson Center.
The fair runs over four days this spring, Apr. 6 through Apr. 10.
“Planning a Street Fair of the Azalea Festival’s size is no easy feat,” organizers explained in an announcement from the festival. “Road closure considerations, health department codes for our food vendors, and public safety are just a few of the top variables. On top of all of these, figuring out the Street Fair layout has been even more challenging the past decade due to continual construction of downtown Wilmington streets.”
Early into planning for the 2022 festival, organizers found out the fair would coincide with the city’s North Front Streetscape Improvement Project, which will turn areas between Chestnut and Walnut streets into construction zones. The work has been pushed back to start immediately after the festival.
The $3.5-million project was rescheduled twice. First, downtown businesses advocated to push it past the holidays, a peak time for sales. The four- to six-month project was then rescheduled to kick off in January, still intersecting with the Azalea Festival, Easter and possibly Memorial Day and the month of June.
Last month, the project was delayed again due to supply chain issues. It will now commence immediately after the festival, the week of Apr. 11, and last through September. The new schedule overlaps with tourism season.
Earlier, when construction was still expected to conflict with the festival, organizers said they met with the city and Cape Fear Community College to reconsider options for the street fair. Moving to the parking lot was an alternative that would keep up with the fair’s size, while easing planning, according to the release. More than 200 vendors are slated to participate.
The lot will also harbor the festival’s usual “fun areas,” including the children’s zone and a stage for multicultural and family-friendly performances.
The relocation is expected to keep guests coming downtown, but some business owners don’t predict that will be the case.
“The festival is usually one of our busiest weekends during the year,” Paul Brown, owner of Java Dog Coffee House, said. “This plan, I feel, will be a damper on the crowds we see. Just can’t see how much people will enjoy walking around in a parking lot.”
According to a UNCW study from 2011, the festival makes a local economic impact of approximately $50 million. Caroline Fisher, owner of Swahili Coast on Front Street, said her sales tripled over past festival weekends. It’s not her busiest time, she clarified, but it does attract foot traffic and serves as a mechanism to promote the businesses, so shoppers will return. Fisher thinks moving the street fair will deter visitors from the rest of downtown — another loss for shop owners ahead of the dreaded streetscape construction.
“It’s not going to benefit downtown businesses in the way that the Azalea Festival usually does,” Fisher said. “Because it will still take up a lot of parking and get people to come look at vendors, but then people are not going to actually stick around to go downtown if they’re not familiar with the area and don’t know where to go.”
Other businesses aren’t as fazed. Old Books on Front doesn’t open during Azalea Festival. Bookshop owner Gwenyfar Rohler said it costs more to keep the open sign flipped on. She instead hopes people walking around will see the window and come back to visit later. Even with the festival relocating away from the storefront, she said Old Books will remain closed to repair a ceiling collapse in her store. Her target date to reopen is the week after Azalea Festival ends.
But for Fisher, it’s not just about businesses. She said the move to the parking lot takes away from highlighting what makes Wilmington quaint, historic and in bloom — all the attributes the festival is intended to showcase.
“By actually moving the main event out of an area that is picturesque and reflects well on our city, I think that we are not really reflecting downtown Wilmington in a very good light,” Fisher said.
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