Just finishing touches left, Riverwalk grand opening Thursday

mvalverde@bradenton.comOctober 14, 2012 

BRADENTON -- It's just a matter of days now. Four, to be exact.

It's all about the finishing touches.

They will turn on the water at the splash park to make sure it soaks those who want to get soaked.

They will raise a 6-foot-tall net around the volleyball courts to keep balls from going into the street.

And the 600-foot-long ribbon patched from at least 150 smaller ones is ready to be snipped.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening for Bradenton's renovated Riverwalk along the Manatee River is Thursday. And nearby businesses, residential projects and cultural organizations say they are ready to see how the new $6.2 million park will transform the city.

"The Riverwalk is going to be a springboard for future businesses," predicts David Gustafson, executive director of Bradenton's Downtown Development Authority. "The more people we bring downtown, the more opportunities."

Bradenton's goal: Attract 250,000 people downtown every year, and create an annual economic return of more than $10 million.

"I want everyone to kick the dirt and see exactly what we have done," says Gustafson. "A quality project and quality venue for people to come out there. ... There's something for everybody."

Before and after

The Riverwalk stretches for about 1.5 miles, from the Green Bridge on the west to Manatee Memorial Hospital in the east.

And it showcases, among other features, an amphitheater, a day dock and skatepark. The rest of the year is already booked with events.

"That area essentially from the DeSoto Bridge over to Ninth Street was primarily filled, years and years ago, from dredging," says Bradenton Councilman Bemis Smith, who represents the area. "The space became known as the Sandpile."

There were people who would go out to the waterfront to fish, "but in general terms, it was just a sidewalk along the grass," he says.

Grass, sand and emptiness.

"In one word, it was underutilized," Smith says firmly.

Proposals to extend and develop that area were brought forward a dozen years ago. Throughout the years, development plans changed in response to the economy.

In the early 2000s, the City Council approved plans for housing development. Construction of the RiverDance condominiums was completed in the mid-2000s.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the Riverwalk renovations took place in September 2011.

Earlier this year, the council approved plan modifications for another apartment building and restaurant on the Sandpile.

"I see the park as a growing process. You find out what works and doesn't work," Smith says. "Once the economy starts coming back, we will be a serious draw for people who want to spend money."

Old Main Street is ready

"Riverwalk's part of the big picture, and it's a very important part," says Rick Willats, general manager of O'Bricks Irish Pub & Martini Bar and president of Old Main Street Merchants Association. "It's going to attract people that wouldn't have come because there wasn't a reason."

O'Bricks would like to have events, such as a car show or outdoor attraction, on Saturdays after the seasonal farmers market, since they anticipate more people will already be around for the Riverwalk.

"You can sit at the riverfront, but can you get something to eat there?" Willats says. "It enhances everything, gives another reason to come to downtown Bradenton. I think it's just going to be spectacular."

Fav's Italian Cucina, another Old Main Street restaurant, is not necessarily doing extra promotions or marketing to attract Riverwalk visitors, says co-owner Michael Favasuli.

"I don't think traffic will just focus on that area," he says. "People will just have more options to take a walk down the river and then get a bite to eat."

As long as businesses keep providing good products and services, customers will continue to go to the downtown shops, Favasuli and others predict.

"Most of the merchants I speak with, we are very excited about it," he says.

The downtown merchants are in communication with the development authority and Realize Bradenton, a nonprofit that works to promote downtown, to make sure the existing shops' presence remains strong.

"It's not just the Riverwalk or Main Street," Favasuli says. "It's one cohesive unit. I think it's going to be great."

Creating a habit

The grand opening season for the Riverwalk runs from October to December, says Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton.

"You can call it a 'soft opening' where Realize Bradenton and the Downtown DDA are really orchestrating events to see how things work," Isham says.

She hopes Bradenton and area residents help keep the momentum going.

"Success certainly in the short term is measured by the sheer number of events and people that visit the Riverwalk," Isham says. "The true measure of success is that there is greater economic activity downtown ... if additional hotels and restaurants open and more people stay."

If residents' quality of life improves, she says, then that's another sign things worked out -- and if people say "Wow, this is really cool."

Bradenton hospitality

"The Riverwalk to me was always a sign that the current leadership in the city was extremely committed to the vibrancy and prospect of a vibrant downtown," says Brian Long, director of development for The Widewaters Group Inc.

Widewaters is reopening a hotel in downtown Bradenton at the site of the former "Pink Palace."

Construction of the Hampton Inn & Suites is expected to begin in November and be completed within 12 months. Long anticipates 50,000 guests staying at the renovated hotel each year.

Events scheduled at the Riverwalk may keep people overnight and staying at the Hampton Inn, Long says. But even if visitors are just coming for daytime events, at least they will be exposed to the Hampton Inn.

"And exposure and word of mouth is everything," Long says.

The Courtyard by Marriott Bradenton Riverfront hotel bordering the Riverwalk is also "in full support" of the new park, says Robyn Price, director of sales and marketing.

The hotel is having a public event following the ribbon-cutting ceremony to showcase its amenities.

"We do feel that it's going to impact the hotel's occupancy in a very positive way," Price says.

The Marriott is the official hotel accommodating attendees for the Bradenton Blues Festivals on Dec. 1 at the Riverwalk.

Tai chi classes will occasionally take place outside the hotel. The Marriott is already mentioning the Riverwalk's attractions in its print and online advertising, Price notes.

"I'm very excited and just love the way the community has pulled together," she says. "I have witnessed it."

Living next to the Riverwalk

"The residents have watched it come to fruition over the past years and their anticipation is great," says Leslie Smart, regional manager for 210 Watermark, an apartment complex adjacent to the Riverwalk.

The apartment complex's occupancy rate this year has been between 95 and 98 percent, with a retention rate of more than 50 percent, she says. In its print marketing and advertising, 210 Watermark will note that the Riverwalk is within walking distance.

"For resident retention, it'll be a positive benefit for us," Smart says. "As far as attracting new residents it's a benefit for the community because it will drive people to the location, we'll get more traffic. We expect more people interested and looking around."

By the numbers

A total of 395,400 people visited Manatee County from January to August, according to figures provided by the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Those visitors left a total economic impact of $465,850,929, according to the bureau.

"We are so excited to have the urban renewal going on downtown, from the Riverwalk to Main Street and all points in between," says Debbie Meihls, executive manager for Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We do anticipate that we will get more impact on the tourist numbers ... strictly by the fact that there's so much to do downtown. I think it's long overdue."

This year's total economic impact represents a 12.3 percent increase from the previous year, she says.

Will the new Riverwalk continue the upward trend? Meihls believes so. But by how much? It's too soon to tell, she acknowledges.

Bridging north and south

Don't rule out the possibility of seeing Pirates at the Riverwalk.

"I think there's potential to do some event for spring training," says Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida Operations for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates play at Bradenton's McKechnie Field, less than two miles from the Riverwalk.

"We're excited to be part of this new rebirth for downtown Bradenton," Gooby says.

On Oct. 25, the Riverwalk will have artists' tents in the Pavilion and Family Fun Zone sections. Visitors will see a sample of the galleries from Village of the Arts, says Linda Bronkema, owner of the quilt store "Bits & Pieces" and president of Artists Guild of Manatee Inc.

Village of the Arts -- a section of the city comprised of galleries and residences -- is just around the corner from McKechnie Field and also within two miles of the Riverwalk. Artists have pamphlets about the Riverwalk at their stores to encourage shoppers to drop by the Riverwalk when it opens.

"I see a lot of growth, even in the Village ... things are starting to bloom again," Bronkema says.

She envisions a trolley to take people from the Riverwalk to the Village, and other attractions could help boost traffic to all venues.

"If you stay at the Courtyard or the new 'Pink Palace' and you flew in," Bronkema says, "wouldn't it be nice to have a trolley that would take you to the sites?"

Playing on an outdoor stage

The Manatee Players, an award-winning theatrical group, is also awaiting a new venue they hope will be finished by March 2013. The new facility is steps away from the Manatee River and the Riverwalk.

The exterior of the building is seemingly ready, pending landscaping, driveways and signage.

"We are looking forward to the new outdoor areas for us to present live entertainment to the community," says Janene Witham, executive director of The Manatee Players. "I think bringing anything downtown will help us increase our patron base."

Manatee Players has performed at the amphitheater and plans to continue.

Says Witham: "The sky is the limit."

Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamValverde.

Click the Camera Icon for more information

Bradenton Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service