Norfolk NATO Festival is the longest continuously running festival in the Hampton Roads region, and the only one of its kind in the United States which honours the NATO Alliance and its member nations.
In 1951, the Women’s Club of Norfolk and a number of Norfolk’s garden clubs embraced an idea espoused by Fred Heutte, the city’s Superintendant of Parks and Forestry, to promote the city’s floral beauty through an annual festival.
Named the Norfolk Crape Myrtle Festival, it took place in Stone Park, located at the north end of The Hague, in the heat of the August sun.
However, after the 1952 festival, city business leaders from the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, the 21st Street Business Area Association, and the Retail Merchants Association revised the festival’s theme and season, choosing a springtime Azalea Festival to highlight the beauty of the one-hundred acre Norfolk Azalea Gardens (now called Norfolk Botanical Gardens).
The festival was operated and financed as a Committee of the Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with the City of Norfolk, from 1953 to 1998.
In 1953, NATO established its first and only command in North America, Supreme Allied Command, Atlantic, in Norfolk, Virginia. Aligning the city’s Azalea Festival with the newly formed NATO command helped it to stand out from the multitude of other azalea festivals in nearly every state south of Mason-Dixon line. One year after NATO’s arrival, Norfolk city leaders renamed this event the International Azalea Festival, which served the dual purposes of a salute to the allied forces and celebrating the beauty of the city’s gardens.
In 2009, NATO celebrated its 60th Anniversary, with 28 full member nations and 22 partner nations as part of the Alliance, providing an ever-increasing and dynamic international community in Hampton Roads.
In the more than 50 years since its inception, the festival has developed into a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, which produces numerous cultural and educational events that are attended annually by thousands of people. The festival is proud to partner with other community organisations, including the Virginia Arts Festival, Visit Norfolk, Norfolk Public Schools, and ACT, to produce these events.
In 2009, the festival changed its name again to the Norfolk NATO Festival. Its goals include creating new friendships, providing a basis for cultural exchange, recognising the military's role in maintaining peace in the world, and pursuing new lines of trade between Norfolk and the world.
Source: Norfolk NATO Festival Web site