To the next Bradenton mayor: Five ways to improve the city's entertainment scene

November 4, 2012 

As Election Day nears, I'm asking the fundamental questions.

What will make Bradenton a better place to live, work and play?

For me, "play" is particularly important.

And I'm not talking about video games or Words with Friends.

Regardless if Bradenton's next mayor is incumbent Mayor Wayne Poston, Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey or challenger Richard O'Brien, I want to see the winner of Tuesday's election committed to growing the city's entertainment scene.

And not just right before he or she is up for reelection.

Continuing to build Bradenton's already robust entertainment scene means increased tourism as well as attracting (and keeping) residents.

Those are economic engines.

Always a big plus.

Most importantly, it improves quality of life.

That's a key component to the prominence of any city.

Having covered our area's entertainment scene for more than a decade (except for stints doing the same around Denver and Los Angeles), I've had the opportunity to see what works.

And what doesn't.

Whoever wins Tuesday's mayoral election should consider these five ways to enhance Bradenton.

1. "Restaurant Row" on Riverwalk

The outstanding YachtSea Grille opened as a direct result of Riverwalk. The terrific Tarpon Point Grille & Tiki Bar, just to the east of Riverwalk, is another perk for visitors to the park. Pier 22, to Riverwalk's west, continues to be a favorite for many when it comes to dinner, drinks and brilliant views of the sun dropping into that special place where the river meets the bay. And there are rumors of a new eatery coming soon to the Courtyard by Marriott.

But for Riverwalk to truly be considered a "restaurant row" -- think Beach Drive in St. Petersburg or South Howard in Tampa -- we need several more exciting bistros and

cafes. This can happen through sensible incentives. But please, just nothing silly like when the city's Downtown Development Authority offered Ezra Cafe, and only Ezra Cafe, $250,000 to relocate downtown.

2. Multi-use Performing Arts Center

The Manatee Players have done a commendable job raising millions of dollars for their new Manatee Performing Arts Center. The venue, which will seat 380 in its main room, appears on schedule to open in March. The Riverwalk-area attraction will primarily serve the Bradenton community theater troupe. But to maximize the space, profits and profile, the city, which has lent the Players substantial money to hasten the building's completion, should also bring national entertainers to the center. I'm thinking acts that might benefit from a room more intimate than what is offered by the City of Sarasota-owned Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall that seats 1,743. Perhaps hand over booking duties to Mary Bensel. She has done a highly effective job as executive director of that prestigious venue located a mere 12 miles to our south while demonstrating a solid understanding of what appeals to her patrons from Bradenton.

3. McKechnie Field entertainment district

The $7.5 million upgrades for McKechnie Field include, among other things, a tiki bar and boardwalk in centerfield. This is a step in creating an entertainment district anchored by the ballpark. But more incentives need to be offered to prospective restaurants -- hey, a nice sports bar nearby would be nice -- to make the area pop. Like it or not, City Councilman Bemis Smith made a pretty valid point earlier this year when he said he couldn't think of "one new business that's opened up on the Ninth Street corridor in the last 10 years." This needs remedied.

4. Revitalize Village of the Arts

I'm a fan of Ortygia and its Sicilian cuisine called Monzu that's always prepared, and often served, by acclaimed chef Gaetano Cannata. And Arts & Eats Restaurant and Gallery, which will celebrate its grand opening Nov. 16, is a place I look forward to visiting.

But the Village of the Arts needs more nurturing.

The city poured $6.2 million into creating the recently opened Riverwalk. It's too early to tell, but so far it seems like a smart investment. I mean, I love the place. Imagine, though, if a fraction of that money had gone to bringing a major business to the Village of Arts? Perhaps a gallery/cafe with name recognition that really stays open year-round, six days a week, including evenings. Might bring some much needed, regular foot traffic to the Village. Greater police presence, and public restrooms, would help, too.

5. Replace City Hall with businesses

Enough already. Get the politicians and everyone else whose salary comes from taxpayer dollars out of that prime property along the Manatee River. Take those government offices and police station to 14th Street. Chalk it up to part of the redevelopment movement. Increase business downtown by filling City Hall with, say, a classy movie theater. The Sarasota Film Society has successfully operated Burns Court Cinemas for decades. More recently, it opened the popular Lakewood Ranch Cinemas. Perhaps SFS could be persuaded to run a multi-screen Downtown Bradenton Cinemas. Shops and restaurants would certainly follow.

Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7057. Follow Twitter.com/wtatangelo.

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