BRADENTON -- Skateboarders, splashing babies and senior citizens were among the thousands in attendance at the opening of the city's 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 can't 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. "It's 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.
"The finished product is better than I thought it would be," Richard O'Brien, also a Bradenton mayoral candidate, said shortly before the ceremony began. "I've already seen people on bikes, joggers and families using the facilities and that's great but I still think we could have done a better job on the price tag."
O'Brien was referring to a flyer he was distributing that read, "Richard O'Brien applauds efforts to beautify city, questions cost and timing in mayor's race."
An email containing the same information went out to members of the media Thursday.
As people of all ages and backgrounds experienced, Riverwalk is a 1.5-mile-long park that includes an interactive splash fountain, skate park, tidal discovery zone, kayak launch, beach volleyball court, a fishing pier, rowing venue, shaded areas to read and lounge as well as 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 waterfront setting.
One-year-old Javeon Lindsey cooled himself off in the splash fountain while being watched by numerous family members, including his grandmother, 46-year-old Bradenton native Minnie Flax.
"It's wonderful to just sit back and watch him play," she said. "There has never been anything like this here my whole life -- everything is so beautiful."
Youths, mostly young men, filled the skate park that spans the area under the DeSoto Bridge.
"Everyone thinks it's great," said 20-year-old skateboarder William Clark of Palmetto. "I never thought the city would do something this cool."
Retirees Dee Strahura and Lois Franke, also of Palmetto, arrived around 3:30 p.m. and relaxed in lounge chairs near the volleyball area that faces the river.
"It's great to give the young people something to do," Strahura said. "It keeps them busy."
Both women then commented on the gorgeous surroundings.
"We're just concerned that it stays this way," Franke said, "and doesn't get ruined."
Wade Tatangelo, features writer, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow Twitter.com/wtatangelo.