Every May, nearly 25,000 people come together on Elizabeth City’s waterfront to celebrate one of the state’s top crops, the potato. The annual North Carolina Potato Festival is a fun-filled day for families, from the free French fries and Little Miss Tater Tot pageant to corn hole tournaments, kiddie games and the street dance that winds up the event late in the evening.
“We’ve got local vendors and vendors from out of state with crafts and food, music and lots of things to do all day,” says Rebecca Cross, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown Inc., which hosts the festival. “It draws all ages and kinds of folks and is really a lot of fun.”
Music on the Water
Though it's Elizabeth City’s largest event, the Potato Festival is by no means the only celebration that enlivens the waterfront. With an annual calendar of festivals, art walks, farmer’s markets, concerts and films, downtown Elizabeth City indeed earns its “Harbor of Hospitality” nickname.
Mariners Wharf park on Water Street, with its sweeping harbor view, provides ample green space for a variety of these activities. One Friday night each month, from June to September, the Elizabeth City Chamber’s free Harbor Nights concerts spotlight regional and nationally famous performers. Tuesdays in August and September belong to Music on the Green, a free series featuring different local artists and musical genres.
“Sit-In” Movies with a Harbor View
Folks also bring their lawn chairs and picnic blankets to the waterfront for a drive-in movie experience, sans cars and speakers. Each Tuesday night in June and July the Mariners Wharf Film Festival, sponsored by Elizabeth City Downtown, offers classic films, from musicals and westerns to romantic comedies, shown for free on a large screen. As many as 300 film fans turn out, enjoying dinner downtown first or bringing a picnic supper to the park. The 2012 season included such enduring classics as Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain and Roman Holiday.
“People have loved these films,” says Simone Cooper, who organizes the festival. “For many this is the first time they’ve seen these films on a big screen. It’s something fun that families can do for free. And that’s important in these economic times.”
Celebrating Freedom, Art and More
In June, Mariner’s Wharf hosts one of the city’s most joyous events, Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. A day honoring African-American culture is filled with music, food, family activities, entertainment and a reading of The Emancipation Proclamation.
Big events, though, aren’t the only way Elizabeth City residents enjoy their waterfront. Each month the First Friday Art Walk brings locals and visitors downtown to stroll galleries and businesses, enjoy local restaurants and get to know the area’s artists. And on Saturdays from May to October the Downtown Waterfront Market offers farm fresh produce, honey, eggs and other goodies.
“Our downtown and our waterfront are the heart of our city, the place where the community gathers,” says Cross. “Downtown holds most of our history, too. There’s a lot of uniqueness to Elizabeth City, and with that, diversity. It’s important to have that kind of identity. It shows who we are and what we are made of.”