BRADENTON -- From the mullet swimming near the Seventh Avenue West bridge off Manatee Avenue, to the pair of Muscovy ducks resting under a tree at the 12th Avenue West bridge, to the squirrel chirping in the trees at 21st Avenue West, an opportunity to interact with nature is evident along Wares Creek.
Ten years ago, this was the vision Manatee County had for residents.
A plan, now shelved due to a lack of funding and priority, once existed to build a three-mile trail system along Wares Creek, with canoe launches, fishing docks and viewing platforms. The start of the project was dependent upon the completion of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' flood control project on the creek.
The expected start date of the flood control project at the time of the design was 2004.
After years of delays, the flood project finally began in January of 2012.
Now a year into the $51.8 million project, county and city officials may be able to revisit a plan to build the trail system.
"If we find a budget in the future, we can make it happen," said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the county's natural resources department.
The county in 2002 adopted a master plan for 80 miles of proposed trails, offering alternative transportation routes connected to schools, parks, historic resources and attractions.
The Wares Creek Trail was designed to have canoe launches and fishing docks between Seventh Avenue West to Manatee Avenue West, and a nature
trail extending from Ninth Avenue West south to 21st Avenue West. Construction of the trail would have cost $400,000, according to county documents.
But after only two years of funding, the county stopped investing in the program when it became clear there would be insufficient funds. Instead, the $200,000 that existed in the account was spent on trail improvements at Emerson Point Preserve west of Palmetto, said county spokesman Nick Azzara.
The total price for all trails would have been in the millions of dollars.
"We weren't financially able to buy trails," Hunsicker said. "It's not something we have to build."
The proposed Wares Creek trail would have followed easements controlled by the county and the city of Bradenton. It would also have connected to another proposed trail along the Cedar Hammock drainage canal through the Bayshore Gardens neighborhood.
The county owns a right of easement for maintenance use for the flood project, not for building a trail. Hunsicker said the county would have to upgrade from easement to outright ownership, and original owners of the property along the creek would have to relinquish their repairing rights, which are worth thousands of dollars per lot. It would also present the dilemma of building a trail behind residents' homes along the creek.
"It's a great idea, it just hasn't been embraced as a priority," Hunsicker said.
In some areas, foliage and properties close to the seawall make the creek inaccessible. In other places, like the 18th Avenue Bridge at 18th Street West and an opening at 21st Avenue approaching 14th Street West, access to the creek is welcoming.
At the beginning of 2012, the Corps of Engineers began dredging 37,000 cubic yards of material from the flood-prone creek, which translates to 53,000 tons of debris by weight. The city of Bradenton has since rebuilt the Ninth Avenue Bridge to better facilitate water flow and is planning to replace bridges at 12th and 14th avenues, along with making drainage improvements on 20th Street West, to ease the flow of water in Wares Creek.
Residents in the area have already noticed an improved quality of aquatic life. Some say the idea of a trail along the creek should be put into action.
"We don't have any place to ride bicycles," said Mary Jo Willis, a resident of Holiday Heights and daughter of former Manatee judge Robert Willis, for whom an elementary in Manatee is named after. "I got very excited when they came out with their greenway plans. We don't have any recreation facilities here. It's almost five miles to the closest recreation area. We're boxed in by the busy highway. I'd like to get out and walk."
Ralph Hancock, a board member with the Suncoast Chapter of the Florida Trails Association, which covers Manatee and Sarasota counties, said trails in urban areas offer an escape and can be therapeutic.
"It's good to walk and get in the sunshine, take your kids and teach them the outdoors," he said. "You're able to get outdoors and see something other than concrete and asphalt and walk along a body of water. It's just great to get outdoors."
The purchase of seven parcels of property in the Ballard Park neighborhood, however, offers the city an alternative recreational project. Parts of the property could become the site of a future rowing facility. The property was sold to the city by Manatee developer John Neal.
"With the acquisition of the Neal properties, the city will provide more public access to the creek than any trail system could," said Bradenton city councilman Patrick Roff, who serves Ward 3, the location of Wares Creek.
As soon as February, "Phase III A" of the project will be under way to widen the seawall about 25 feet and deepen it about a foot from 21st to 30th avenues west. Widening the creek will increase the capacity for flood control.
Phase II of the project, which was repositioned to start after the third phase, will be the clearing and snagging of vegetation between Ninth and 17th avenues west.
Phase III B will entail widening the seawall from 30th Avenue West to Cortez Road and is expected to begin this summer.
Unofficial pathways along the bank of the creek currently exist.
Bradenton police Capt.Warren Merriman said trespassing on pathways on private property in the neighborhood has not been an issue.
Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams.