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Downtown businesses hopeful for a bottom line boost during Azalea Festival

Downtown businesses hopeful for bottom line boost during Azalea Festival
Downtown businesses hopeful for bottom line boost during Azalea Festival(WECT News)
Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 12:16 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Azalea Festival events return this week. It all starts Thursday with the Sublime with Rome concert at the new Riverfront Park Amphitheater. The Avett Brothers play Friday and Saturday and the festival street fair on South Front Street will begin Friday night. The Azalea Festival parade happens Saturday morning.

After the festival was pushed back by almost a year and a half, Downtown Wilmington Businesses are looking forward to the bottom line boost its return will bring.

“Azalea festival is huge downtown,” said RJ Sargent, General Manager of the downtown Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar. “We mark Azalea Festival as like the apex of where we’re going to start taking off.”

As people attend the events in downtown this weekend, they could also decide to walk through the same doors that were locked when the festival was supposed to take place in 2020.

“The pandemic was very tough. Crust closed completely for about three months. Rebellion — we did do take out,” said John Bradley, managing partner of Crust and Rebellion.

Bradley said that things have picked back up as the economy has reopened, but that the Azalea Festival, especially, “brings a ton of people downtown.”

GiGi Ciliselli, manager at Hell’s Kitchen, echoed that.

“I just hope, you know, it’s as good for everybody this week and down here because it is such a big weekend for us for the whole year,” Ciliselli said. “So I’m just hoping that it will be — since we’ve missed it almost two years in a row now — that this will kind of bring us back together a little bit and bring us some hope for the rest of the year.”

With rain expected this weekend, some are worried that may put a damper on turnout. Others are worried about the turnout now that COVID-19 cases are on the rise.

Sargent said that he has heard a range of opinions.

“I get people that are really excited for it and some people are kind of like, ‘eh I don’t really know what’s going to happen,’ because of COVID, so everyone is like, you know, ‘do we really want to be gathering and doing this?’” he said. “And everybody else is like, ‘yes — lets get in and lets have a good time with it.’”

Azalea Festival Executive Director Alison Baringer said they have all been looking forward to this weekend to bring some economic stimulus back into the community.

All of the events will be outdoors and there will be more room to spread out this year than years past, according to Baringer.

“The footprint is the same, but our number of vendors and like for the parade our number of parade participants is smaller — is going to be smaller. We think also just due to the timing, you know, of the festival being in August this year. So certainly we anticipate there’s going to be a lot more space to spread out,” she said.

They are also encouraging people to distance when they can. They will also follow the new indoor mask mandate starting Friday in New Hanover County as will businesses downtown.

“Especially when it comes to public health — we’re a restaurant so that’s got to be at the top of our priorities and it is. So we’re treating it just as we did before,” Sargent said. “I’ll have a posted sign out front saying masks are mandated. I’ll probably post the mandate there just in case we get some skeptical travelers.”

The concerts taking place over the weekend will be at the Riverfront Park amphitheater which is run by Live Nation. There are some safety measures they have in place as well. They will have a clear bag policy, which means clear plastic, vinyl or PVC bags to reduce staff contact with guest belongings.

Live Nation also recently announced a proof of vaccination or negative COVID test policy at all its venues, but that does not start until October 4th so it does not apply to the Azalea Festival concerts.

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