The N.C. Azalea Festival, Cucalorus Festival, Wilmington Boat Show and the Wrightsville Beach Marathon Madness Weekend all bring different forms of entertainment to the region.
But the leaders of these large events, which take place in Wilmington each year, cited some of the same needs to grow in the community, including more venues, long-term sustainability and more support from businesses and the community.
The four leaders took the stage as panelists Wednesday at the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s Power Breakfast event at the Wilmington Convention Center to talk about some of the advantages and challenges of hosting events in Wilmington.
For the Wilmington Boat Show’s Jacqui Bomar, president and owner of JBM & Associates, the convention center, Port City Marina and Battleship Park have been assets in launching and hosting the show in Wilmington. Space is needed, however, to grow the show into the likes of larger shows in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she said.
“There is so much opportunity in this community to grow this show,” she said. “We need to just keep the footprint growing bigger and bigger, and bring in docks and do different things.”
Bomar also said that continued support from the local business community through sponsorships and an increasing willingness to help solve event problems would also benefit the show, which is gearing up for its third year.
"I need ideas and people in this community who also have the vision to help us," she said about developing the spread of the show along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.
The addition of hotels and other venues in Wilmington has also been a boost for the Cucalorus Festival and a catalyst for growth in the festival platform last year, which expanded into Cucalorus Film, Stage and Connect, said Dan Brawley, executive director of the Cucalorus Festival.
“For the first time there were many more hotels in downtown Wilmington, and the venue landscape has just started to change,” Brawley said.
This year, the opening event of the Cucalorus Festival will take place at the Brooklyn Arts Center, a venue that hosts a number of concerts and other events each year, Brawley said. The area, however, would benefit from other indoor music venues, he said.
Brawley touched on the hit the downtown venue scene took with the loss of the Soap Box inside a Front Street building, which recently opened as a Waffle House restaurant, and the Manor Theatre building on Market Street, which previously housed the Blue Eyed Muse before the venue closed up last fall.
“We have struggled in recent years,” he said. “We are going to be booking more music at Cucalorus … so there is room for improvement.”
Brawley said he hopes the smaller “more grassroots-type venues” will begin to pop back up over the next decade. And as Brawley plans for the future of the Cucalorus Festival over the next five years, he said the festival hopes to utilize Cape Fear Community College’s Wilson Center. He also hopes to expand into the Wilmington Convention Center in that same timeframe.
The need for a music venue was also echoed by Justin Wolfe, president of the N.C. Azalea Festival, which is now in its 71st year. The festival’s outdoor concert scene has posed some financial and logistical challenges for the longtime event in Wilmington, he said.
“Building a concert venue that is a parking lot 90 percent of the year is a significant expense and challenge that we put on every year,” Wolfe said.
Music is tough in Wilmington, Wolfe said. Wilmington may not be on the route plans or schedules of some of the larger, national acts.
When the festival books concerts, the venues that the festival has “are considered a shed or a beat-down venue,” Wolfe said, because the outdoor downtown venue is a stage created in a parking lot.
Questions from the crowd did highlight the planned North Waterfront Park, which is expected to open sometime late 2019. All the panelists said they hope to have a slot on the line-up for the planned events space, as with other events that would be coming through national management by Live Nation Worldwide Inc. through a city contract.
Wolfe also mentioned envisioning a festival that’s expanding beyond New Hanover County and into Brunswick and Pender counties.
“We have downtown basically on lockdown for three days, and it’s a big inconvenience for a lot of people, so I think we need to have the ability to think outside the box and see where we can put other events throughout the three-county area so it’s not just a burden on New Hanover County ... If we share those resources, the burden becomes less on all the things that are done here,” Wolfe said.
Stability in the venue landscape was also touted by panelists as a mechanism for planning and growing the larger homegrown events, the leaders said.
Tom Clifford, race director for the Wrightsville Beach Marathon, said his 26-mile venue of open road requires many approvals from different state and local entities, and planning is a challenge each year.
This year’s event is March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day, which is the same weekend as another large “very successful race” in Cary, he said, adding that the date could pose competition for the area race.
“Longterm arrangements when you are talking about bringing a successful marathon and half marathon, which is a pinnacle in our country, you want to be able to have some security long term, and that is something that I think is lacking in Wilmington is long-term contracts and arrangements with areas of our county,” Clifford said.
Transportation is also a challenge for the big race as thousands of participants make their way to the starting line. Clifford suggested that shuttles at hotels and more participation from businesses to open up their parking spots would help the flow of getting people to and from the race.
And each of the event leaders said community support, both in attendance and creating a welcoming atmosphere for outside visitors, is also essential for success.
“It’s nothing but positive ... we’re talking about the most positive events that there are. And so this is our opportunity. Without events, our quality of life just isn't there. Our events make us who we are," Clifford said. "It just gives us a platform, not just my race but these other events too. So I would like to see more engagement ... and get our community of 150,000-plus more involved in the events, instead of looking at it as an inconvenience, looking at it as an opportunity."
Correction: This story corrects the name of Justin Wolfe, president of the N.C. Azalea Festival.