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The Dive: The Tourism Tax, plus The Azalea Festival stays mum

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson reads from the official proclamation kicking of the North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington.
The Assembly
Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson reads from the official proclamation kicking of the North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington.

Every week, WHQR's Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. This week, a lawsuit in Currituck County puts a spotlight on the so-called Tourism Tax. Plus, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson's role in kicking off the Azalea Festival puts organizers in a tough spot.

The Dive is a free weekly newsletter jointly published by WHQR and The Assembly. You can find more information and subscribe here. You can find Johanna F. Still's look at room occupancy tax here.

Last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson kicked off the North Carolina Azalea Festival with an official proclamation that he delivered from Raleigh, the video of which the festival shared on social media.

It did not go over exceptionally well.

That’s not to say Robinson, who is running for governor, doesn’t have supporters here in Wilmington. He does, and they chimed in approvingly on Instagram and Facebook. But Robinson’s bigotry against trans, LGBTQ+, women, and Jewish people has made national headlines and airwaves, and many commenters voiced frustration and anger that the Azalea Festival would have anything to do with him.

StarNews’ venerable reporter John Staton covered the backlash, but Azalea Festival organizers didn’t comment. Gov. Cooper’s office also didn’t really give a clear reason why the proclamation, which the governor or someone in his office usually reads, came from Robinson this year.

“As in years past, the governor’s office provided the annual proclamation for the Azalea Festival. The governor was unable to join the ceremony held at the General Assembly as he joined the president and vice-president during their visit to Raleigh on Tuesday afternoon,” Jordan Monaghan, the governor’s deputy communications director, wrote in an email to Staton.

I reached out to Cooper’s office myself, and Monaghan sent the same statement, with one extra sentence: “We are not aware of additional requests by the Festival for the proclamation reading, which was scheduled with legislative leaders at the General Assembly,” he wrote.

State Sen. Michael Lee, who was present for the proclamation reading along with several other Republican delegation members from southeastern North Carolina, said his office didn’t coordinate the event. Lee added that, prior to the pandemic, it was common for festival organizers to do meet-and-greets with representatives in the General Assembly.

As for Robinson’s role, Lee said he thinks the festival just went to the next-highest-ranking official that would attend.

It’s not clear why festival organizers didn’t try harder to get Cooper, but perhaps it just wasn’t logistically possible. Surely, if Azalea Festival organizers were to respond to critics or the press and simply say as much, it would assuage the concerns that this was an attempt to cozy up with the potential future governor or an endorsement of Robinson’s most hateful comments.

The dozens of people who say festival organizers have ignored their concerns have been left to think the worst. So far, the Azalea Festival has resolutely stuck with the same ultra-cheery, all-inclusive, family-friendly media blitz it runs every year.

As a nonprofit that only rarely gets government funding, the festival relies on public support–and goodwill. For that reason, it seems important that organizers stay in touch with the community. The festival has made changes over the years in response to evolving public opinion, like shedding some of its antebellum nostalgia by modernizing the Azalea Belle program.

So, while it’s wise, probably even necessary, for the festival to focus on garden parties over politics, that stance is likely to leave some residents feeling angry, frustrated, and left out.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.
Johanna Still is The Assembly‘s Wilmington editor. She previously covered economic development for Greater Wilmington Business Journal and was the assistant editor at Port City Daily.