Revive decade-old Manatee County trail system proposal

January 20, 2013 

With dredging of Wares Creek from the Manatee Avenue bridge to the Ninth Avenue West span completed in August, Bradenton residents are enjoying a resurgence in wildlife there -- fish, fowl, even manatees. Nature trails along the creek's banks would be a boon to the quality of life there, even an attraction to bring more visitors to the historic neighborhood.

A decade ago, Manatee County developed that vision as part of a countywide trail system. The plan's three-mile Wares Creek trail went down to Cortez Road and featured canoe and kayak launches, fishing docks and viewing platforms -- amenities that can be found in the county's outstanding collection of nature preserves.

This short stretch was part of a master plan for 80 miles of trails around the county, trails that connected parks, schools, historic assets and other attractions.

The idea of riding a bicycle or hiking along urban trails away from the vehicle traffic and exhaust fumes is highly desirable. By enhancing the environment, trails also become an asset to attract growth and young people.

As the 2002 "Manatee County Greenways Master Plan" outlined, consumers seek out communities that promote interaction with others, including bike and walking paths. The public's popular embrace of Riverwalk downtown proves this point yet again.

But the anticipated 2004 launch date for the flood control project never materialized, the key to the Wares Creek trail. Then other priorities cropped up and funding became scarce. The plan remains on the shelf, dusty and likely needing updates should county officials resurrect it.

When Herald reporter Nick Williams inquired about the aging idea, Charlie Hunsicker expressed enthusiasm for the project. "It's a great idea, it just hasn't been embraced as a priority," the county's natural resources director stated. "If we find a budget in the future, we can make it happen."

As always, that's the roadblock to non-essential civic improvements. The multimillion dollar cost of a trail system is indeed daunting, though some grant money from environmental agencies, conservation organizations and foundations could be available.

Still, the potential economic impact -- urban revitalization and growth, increased property values, tourism and more -- would help offset the cost.

The master plan, prepared by Manatee County government and the Citizens Trail Committee with assistance from the National Park Service, blankets the county with trails leading into Sarasota and Hillsborough counties.

One stretches from Duette along the Myakka River into Sarasota. The Wares Creek portion connects with the so-called Bayshore Treewalk Trail and then jogs northwest as the Palma Sola Trail.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to launch another phase of the $51.8 million Cedar Hammock-Wares Creek flood control project in the near future -- by widening the Wares channel to about 25 feet from 21st Avenue West to 30th Avenue West, the identical route as the proposed trail. While it seems like a no-brainer to build the trail as part of the flood project, the Corps' mission does not allow any type of beautification.

We encourage the city of Bradenton and Manatee County to take a fresh look at a Wares Creek trail, even separate from the grander countywide master plan. Maybe one small step can lead to bigger things by generating public enthusiasm.

More public access to Wares Creek is already in the offing with the city's acquisition of seven parcels in the Ballard Park neighborhood, with a historic creekfront house possibly serving as the base for a rowing center and a passive park on other land.

A trail would enhance the creek experience.

On a side note, kayakers have spotted an unsightly slew of garbage along the banks of Wares Creek. Unfortunately, unprincipled people dump all manner of refuse there.

But fortunately, civic-minded volunteers collect the urban trash twice a year in an effort established by Hunsicker and the county more than a decade ago.

In 2001, county commissioners approved a plan that included periodic stream clean-ups, water-quality monitoring and the formation of a community organization, now known as the Wares Creek Neighborhood Association.

Today, the association, Bradenton Kiwanis Club and Keep Manatee Beautiful combine forces along with other volunteers for two annual clean-ups -- as part of two events, the Great American Clean Up Day and the International Coastal Clean Up Day.

This is actually a perpetual obligation with the Corps of Engineers to maintain the creek, Hunsicker noted.

The creek's banks may look pitiful now, but that should not last.

The accessibility of trails to a large population has tremendous appeal, as evidenced by the immense popularity of the Robinson Preserve in northwest Bradenton. Let's dust off the greenways master plan.

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