Creative place-making in downtown Bradenton can help attract jobs

August 20, 2012 

When Bradenton's Riverwalk officially opens this fall and hosts the Bradenton Blues Festival, the friendly city on the south shore of the Manatee River will add another element in the community's drive toward "creative place-making."

More than a magnet for tourists and local residents to enjoy the waterfront, the Riverwalk, which links a string of cultural and entertainment gems, is an investment in job creation. How's that? Because successful communities have proven that job-creating businesses are attracted to communities with a strong sense of place, abundant arts and cultural offerings, and a vibrant downtown.

In addition to enriching our minds and hearts, the arts and culture are well documented as an economic engine. Recently, the nonprofit Americans for the Arts updated its analysis on the economic impact of the arts nationally.

Robert L. Lynch, president and chief executive officer of Americans for the Arts, recently wrote that "of the $135.2 billion of economic activity generated by America's arts industry, $61.1 billion comes from the nation's nonprofit arts and culture organizations and $74.1 billion from event-related expenditures by their audiences. This economic activity supports 4.1 million full-time jobs and produces $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments every year, a yield well beyond their collective $4 billion in arts allocations."

Bradenton's popularity as an arts destination is increasing. Earlier this year, readers of AmericanStyle magazine ranked Bradenton among the top U.S. destinations for art collectors and travelers who visit art galleries, museums and festivals.

Besides an affirmation for all the organizations that work so hard to provide these amenities to local residents and visitors, the ranking points to a sector with great potential to help fuel the local economy.

But can the arts and a "sense of place" in a downtown really attract other types of high-impact jobs, such as corporate headquarters or technology innovators, for example?

One example may befound in Davenport, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. A paper published by the International EconomicDevelopment Councilillustrates how the small town of 100,000 focused on its downtown riverfront to stage an economic comeback.

Beginning in the 1980s, Davenport's downtown declined as agricultural manufacturing waned in the region and the suburbs drew residents and retail away from the central city.

In 2001, local government and business leaders rallied with a multi-faceted, $110-million plan to revitalize the downtown through a combination of public and private investment.

Elements of the project included a business incubator, an art museum, a sky bridge for viewing the river and safely traversing a major roadway, an education and entertainment center focused on the music of the Mississippi River, and two public parking garages that helped to spur development of the city's first Class A office building in over 20 years.

Those investments, in turn, sparked the interest of employers who brought their businesses -- and jobs -- to Davenport.

The town's resurgence is contagious: Rock Island, Ill., across the river from Davenport, has become part of a regional place-making effort.

In Bradenton, as the Downtown Development Authority and Realize Bradenton gear up for the Riverwalk's grand re-opening, we can look beyond the concerts, skatepark, Manatee Players, South Florida Museum, restaurants and night spots.

We can look into our community's future as a creative beacon that entertains tourists and residents, while attracting employers with high-impact jobs.

Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Manatee Economic Development Corp., can be reached at info@ManateeEDC.com or 941-748-4842, ext. 128.

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