On March 16, the City of North Myrtle Beach will hold its 31st annual St. Patrick’s Day festival.
It starts with a parade at 9 a.m., followed by a festival on Main Street with more than 150 vendors promoting their businesses and selling their wares from 11a.m to 4 p.m.
The festival brings in more people every year.
“We actually do an attendee count, said Tina McCrackin, the city’s event and program director. “It’s grown every year; 55,000 was our count last year.”
Mayor Marilyn Hatley described it as one of the biggest St. Paddy’s Day celebrations in the Southeast.
“We even have people who we may call ‘Snowbirds,’ and they plan to stay long enough for St. Patrick’s Day,” Hatley said. “Before St. Patrick’s Day became so big and successful, they would leave before St. Patrick’s Day. But now they make their plans around St. Patrick’s Day.”
It wasn’t always such a big deal.
A retiree named Ben Scalia started the festival in 1988 in the A&P grocery store parking lot along Highway 17 where a Lowes is now located. In the beginning, it was a small gathering that McCrackin described as a craft fair.
“Ben, he was the instigator in putting it together,” said Harold Worley, a North Myrtle Beach businessman and county councilor. “Ben made contact with local business people to put it together, to start with. Ben was the leader. He was the guy. We started the new chamber in 1999. Then they got involved and helped push it to another level. Over the years the festival has grown a little bit every year.”
Scalia died about 15 years ago, Worley said. By that time the festival infrastructure was already in place.
“Ben, he was a leader,” Worley said. “I don’t think he ever really wanted to get involved in the political side, he’d rather do things like that. And he did and he did a good job on it. All of the business community got behind him and helped him, and then later on he started getting some funding from the city and the chamber, and it’s grown into a very good and large event.”
As the parking lot gathering grew, a parade was added. The city took over the event in 2008, McCrackin said. Now, the city plans each festival more than a year in advance.
Decorations start going up a week before the parade, McCrackin said. Vendors start setting up on Main Street at 6 a.m. the day of the festival.
“We have three stages of entertainment that run all day and we have pipe and drum bands that play,” McCrackin said. “And we have stilt walkers that walk throughout the area and do balloons. Our businesses have green beer that they’re selling. It’s a really fun event and it still has a family atmosphere to it, and it’s something we’re proud of.”
There’s also a Shepherd’s Pie-eating contest and a Lucky Charm contest, which could more accurately be described as a best-dressed leprechaun competition.
The city uses the event to promote the downtown area, and it works, with tourists coming in for the parade and spending their money at local businesses.
“It creates a weekend of business that without it, we would be nowhere,” Worley said, adding that without the festival, local businesses “would probably be doing 15 percent of what we do.”
This year, McCrackin said she’s expecting between 45,000 and 50,000 people to come to the festival.
“We have a lot of Irish people who live here and they have helped us grow this event,” Mayor Hatley said. “Seems like it’s one of those events that is very popular for the whole entire Horry County.”