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New Bradenton Riverwalk Revives City's Sense Of Place

The new Bradenton Riverwalk.
The new Bradenton Riverwalk. - Photo by Julie Branaman
The October 18 kickoff of the three-month grand opening celebration for the $6.2 million Bradenton Riverwalk renovation project will help shape what's next for the City's revitalization in the shared vision of Mayor Wayne Poston, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority (BDDA), Realize Bradenton and private community partners. 

The 1.5 mile-long Riverwalk park includes a kayak launch, beach volleyball, a fishing pier, a rowing venue, a skateboard park, a tidal discovery zone, shaded areas to read or lounge, an interactive splash fountain, and a 19-slip day dock. It serves as a gallery of more than 20 pieces of outdoor art with interactive sound sculptures, history and beauty to match the natural river setting.

Centrally located in the park is a covered Pavilion and Event Area, which will be the site for concerts, festivals and other private and public events. The festival site overlooking the Manatee River can accommodate up to 2,000 people, says Dave Gustafson, executive director of the BDDA.

The Riverwalk is possible today because City of Bradenton founders had the foresight to keep two miles bordering the Manatee River in downtown as public property. What the community has done with it could serve as a case study on creative "placemaking" -- a recognized economic development strategy that brings together physical and cultural aspects to produce short- and long-term results for the overall well-being of a community, says Johnette Isham, executive director for Realize Bradenton.

"Realize Bradenton was established to provide cultural, art, heritage and sports events as a way to build community and quality of life for our residents as well as to grow and increase economic development," Isham says. "Over time, as Realize Bradenton works with public, private and nonprofit partners, a unique and preferred cultural destination will result, attracting new residents, businesses and tourism to our downtown urban core." 

"Increasingly, cities are competing for residents and businesses. High-quality public spaces such as the Riverwalk, Bradenton's Village of the Arts, and the updated Main Street, combined with a diversity of ongoing and special events will make Bradenton a friendly, livable, sustainable community," Isham adds.

The spillover is growth in consumer spending, greater office and housing occupancy, and more tourism, says Isham. City officials estimate that the Riverwalk and Bradenton events will attract as many as 250,000 people and result in more than $12 million in consumer spending. The amenities also make the area more attractive to younger residents.

Tapping The Collaborative Spirit

The Cultural Master Plan "provides clear strategies to fully exploit the potential for cultural development by building upon existing programs, increasing private and public support, and continuing to nurture and tap the collaborative spirit and leadership that have characterized the planning process," reads the Realize Bradenton website.

Representing that collaborative spirit is the more than 800-feet-long grand opening ribbon that comprises 42-inch segments designed by more than 120 people, businesses and organizations. 

"We made sure the public was invited into the process and had a voice. From design to completion, we had more than 1,500 community members actively involved in this plan," says Gustafson. "We involved architectural students from the University of South Florida that live in Bradenton, as well as local artists and residents."

Isham says the Riverwalk will come alive with events after the ribbon cutting, creating excitement but also establishing "habits" for ongoing free programs, such as yoga, drum circles, walking, skateboarding and fishing. Realize Bradenton manages more than 70 events a year in the city.

Bradenton was named number two on AmericanStyle magazine's list of favorite small town destinations for collectors and travelers who visit art galleries, museums and festivals, adds Gustafson. "Culture and art amenities attract new businesses. New businesses mean more jobs and revenue."

The Riverwalk has spawned new business interest. Plans are in motion for Widewaters Bradenton, LLC, to turn the former Manatee River Hotel into a 115-bed Hampton Inn & Suites Hotel. Locally known as "The Pink Palace," the 1920s-era hotel is a historic Bradenton icon and expects to reopen in fall 2013, anchoring one end of the Riverwalk.

Main Street has experienced resurgence, too. Rick Willats, owner of O'Brick's Irish Pub and Martini Bar, recently opened The Grill restaurant. The Old Main Street Merchants Association president says the improvements downtown have made a difference, especially to events such as the monthly Main Street Live street party.  "We have seen foot traffic and sales beyond anything imagined compared to previous years. People come and hang out. It's nicer, more comfortable and it's just going to get better when the Riverwalk opens."

The Downtown Market, a famer's market that runs every Saturday from October to May on the Riverwalk is a popular meeting place for residents and visitors, and attendance is expected to increase. 

Bradenton's Grand Fall Season

The Grand Opening Celebration sponsored by C1 Bank on Thursday, October 18, begins at 4:30 p.m. with refreshments and music. The program starts at 5:15 p.m. followed by the community ribbon cutting.  Then the Riverwalk comes alive with art talks, walking tours, along with skateboard, volleyball, and tai chi demos. State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota's Music Program, will perform with their chamber choir, jazz combo, guitar ensemble, percussion ensemble and brass choir. With the exception of the Blues Festival and History Cruise, all events are free to the public.

The third annual ArtSlam and the inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival are among the celebration highlights.

ArtSlam 2012 on Saturday, November 10, from noon to 10 p.m. is a celebration of the arts featuring hundreds of artists, musicians, performers, students, and other creative individuals. According to Isham, "This family-friendly festival features over 20 'out of the box' interactive experiences so both adults and children can be part of the art-making process."

Saturday, December 1, marks the first Bradenton Blues Festival featuring eight nationally known blues groups --  three of which won prestigious 2012 Blues Music Awards.

Gates open at 10 a.m., with music starting at 11 a.m. and continuing into the night, featuring award-winning headliners from all over the country. The presenting sponsor for the festival is BMO Harris Bank joined by 51 other business sponsors. Tickets are $25 and available online.

"This is a great location for an outdoor festival and the perfect grand finale to the grand opening of the Riverwalk redevelopment," says Gustafson. "The Bradenton Blues Festival will definitely attract people from outside the region to our area."

For a complete list of the Bradenton Riverwalk Grand Opening events, dates and times, follow this link.

Sandra Caswell Hice is a freelance writer living in Tampa with two dogs, two cats and husband Joe. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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