BRADENTON -- Skateboarders, splashing babies and senior citizens were among the thousands in attendance at the opening of the citys most highly anticipated project in decades.
Welcome to your Riverwalk, Mayor Wayne Poston told the large, diverse audience gathered in the newly-sodded Pavilion and Event Area. This public park has been a dream of mine for years. Poston, who took office in 2000 and is seeking re-election Nov. 6, talked about how during his many years as executive editor of the Bradenton Herald he used to look at the area along the Manatee River formerly known as the Sandpile and envision a public park. I cant stop smiling, Poston said with a big grin. This is such a great thing. Refreshments were served to hundreds before the ceremony started at 5 p.m. with a rededication of the First Responders Memorial. After speeches by Poston and other community leaders, including Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Dave Gustafson, there was a spectacular community ribbon cutting of an 800-foot long banner held by hundreds. The Riverwalk is going to be a place for people of all ages, Marianne Barnebey, a Bradenton mayoral candidate who has served on the city council since 1998, told the Herald. Its outstanding to see everyone out here.
Starting at the west end where a new walkway runs under the Green Bridge, to the Manatee Memorial Hospital area on the east, people started exploring the $6.2 million park along the Manatee River hours before the official opening.
Bradenton's Sandpile has been transformed into an attraction that rivals any downtown park in Southwest Florida.
Echoing the enthusiasm of a multitude of long-time Bradenton residents, Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Dave Gustafson couldn't be more excited about what has happened to the southern banks of the Manatee River.
He has lived and worked in the Bradenton area since moving here as a child in 1973.
Gustafson, like so many Manatee residents, has witnessed the city's waterfront progress, often at a glacial pace, from wasteland to destination spot.
"When you hear all these potential starts and stops and the economy killing things you just keep trying to put the pieces together," Gustafson said while surveying the Riverwalk. "It's been on the mayor's bucket list, the city council's bucket list and the bucket lists of countless others.
And now it has come to fruition."
The Riverwalk is a 1.5-mile long park that includes an interactive splash fountain, a first-class skate park, tidal discovery zone, kayak launch, beach volleyball, fishing pier, rowing venue, shaded areas to read and lounge, and a 20-slip day dock. The Riverwalk also serves as a gallery of outdoor art with about two dozen pieces that offer interactive sound sculptures, river history and beauty to match the river setting.
The "Postcards from the Friendly City" section, named after the critically acclaimed national release by Bradenton band Have Gun, Will Travel, features nine large-scale art panels along the Riverwalk to illustrate the community's history. Centrally located in the park is a covered pavilion and event area that's the site for ArtSlam on Nov. 10 and the Bradenton Blues Festival on Dec. 1.
Gustafson worked for eight years as a land planning director for Benderson Development Co. and had been a project manager with Manatee County since 2009 before landing the DDA job last May. He always had high hopes for Riverwalk but never dreamed it would feature so many amenities.
"This absolutely exceeds my expectations 100 times over," Gustafson said. "There's something for everyone here."
The opening celebration Thursday includes live a concert performance by State College of Florida and refreshments at 4:30 p.m. At 5:15 p.m., the program begins with speakers followed by a community cutting of the 800-foot long ribbon.
The public can then explore the Riverwalk with art talks, walking tours as well as skateboard, volleyball and tai chi demos.
Attendees will receive a free copy of the recently published 100-page Riverwalk Grand Opening Guide and 2012 Bradenton Blues Festival Program. This commemorative magazine includes a brief history of the riverfront, a map of the new features, descriptions of downtown Bradenton's arts and culture assets as well as more than 25 photographs of the Riverwalk.
Realize Bradenton will be introducing its new Downtown Ambassadors Program on Thursday . These individuals, clearly visible in their bright yellow shirts, will be ready to answer questions and assist at numerous Realize Bradenton events during the year.
"City fathers and mothers always thought they needed to provide something to the public," Gustafson said. "It's not very often cities have this kind of a feature."
Wade Tatangelo, features writer, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow Twitter.com/wtatangelo.