Growing Bradenton's new artsy, colorful brand

November 9, 2012 

The downtown Bradenton transit station opens Saturday, building on the playful and artsy look introduced with Riverwalk. The city could add even more momentum to this innovative and colorful design by forging ahead with Artisan Avenue, years in the making.

This signature pedestrian corridor would link downtown with Village of the Arts via alleyways, service drives and walkways sprinkled with shops, public art and gathering spots. Bradenton could then lay claim to another nickname, the Funky City.

People clearly enjoy Riverwalk's engaging design, as witnessed by the huge crowds during its grand opening on Oct. 18.

Last weekend's Taste of Manatee restaurant and entertainment festival attracted a record crowd estimated at 25,000, according to the Bradenton Downtown Development.

Furthermore, DDA Executive Director David Gustafson noted the sparkling new park attracted 100,000 people over the three weeks since its debut. "Who would have thought there would be this much pent-up excitement," he said in an Editorial Board interview.

Indeed. The expectation was Riverwalk would draw 250,000 to 500,000 its first year, but with myriad other events in the offing that forecast appears far too low.

Expect other giant crowds for ArtSlam 2012 this weekend and the inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival on Dec. 1, both productions of the nonprofit Realize Bradenton Inc.

The promotional organization's mission is to brand the city as one of the top riverfront communities in the nation in order to boost tourism. Another goal is to create buzz and attract a highly educated creative class of new residents that will then spur economic development.

Riverwalk's a major piece of that puzzle.

Artisan Avenue would extend Riverwalk's playfulness into another colorful and artistic neighborhood, the Village of the Arts. The village continues to pull in new businesses with the latest, Arts & Eats Restaurant and Gallery, celebrating its grand opening from Nov. 16-17. The venue, in a 1925 chartreuse bungalow, will also offer entertainment.

Artisan Avenue holds the promise of further boosting not only Village of the Arts but creating a groundswell of fresh attention to Bradenton.

While the Manatee County Area Transit station is not on the same grand scale, this adds to the city's vibe as a cool place.

With architecture that combines a variety of materials -- metal, wood and tile -- in an arching design that provides shelter, the station is more than utilitarian. Foxtail palm trees, a colorful mural composed of five giant panels and a twisting blue fence also provide visual delight.

Just as important, buses and passengers will no longer clog up the block next to the Historic Courthouse.

Bradenton is in line for additional buzz with other projects coming up. The Manatee Players appear poised to complete the new Manatee Performing Arts Center in March. McKechnie Field is in line for $7.5 million in upgrades that include such people-pleasing elements as a tiki bar and boardwalk in centerfield. The South Florida Museum and ArtCenter Manatee are also looking to expand.

While the DDA has been sharply focused on Riverpark, the next big push will be projects focusing on Village of the Arts and the 14th Street Community Redevelopment Agency. Currently, residents and businesses in those neighborhoods are being surveyed for ideas on potential improvements.

Once the DDA completes something of a village and CRA makeover -- colorful and playful, we hope -- the agency will turn its attention to Artisan Avenue, Gustafson said.

We're heartened to hear that. With Riverwalk such a smashing success, Artisan Avenue is a worthy cousin to grow Bradenton's funky brand.

A decade or so into the future, Gustafson hinted Riverwalk could extend to Tarpon Point and even all the way to the Braden River. "Why not think big?"

Why not indeed.

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