Public use policies for Bradenton's Riverwalk still evolving

March 19, 2013 

Since opening in October to huge crowds and rave reviews, Riverwalk continues to be a people magnet. Young mothers and fathers flock to the playground with toddlers in tow and picnics in hand. Baby strollers and scooters crowd the walkway.

Seniors armed with cameras are a constant. And youth of all ages jam the skatepark.

Major events such as the Bradenton Blues Festival, ArtSlam and Taste of Manatee attract hundreds and hundreds of residents and visitors.

Yet not everyone's happy.

A recent dust-up put a sharp public focus on park policies -- or lack thereof. Good Samaritans handing out free hot dogs and refreshments to skaters found they were not welcome. Jim and Michele Tejkl and their young sons Cheyenne, 14, Casey, 13, Cody, 9, and Chris, 7, got ejected from the park on the first Sunday in March by Bradenton police.

Understandably, the City of Bradenton has been waiting and watching how public use of the park evolves before recasting policies and regulations on its use by vendors, organizations and individuals. We're almost six months out from opening day, but that's still a work in progress.

Cooking and dispensing food at the park requires city clearance over liability and health considerations, and such operations must meet health department rules and regulations. The Tejkls apparently did not consult with the city or seek permission.

This generous family had been cooking up a considerable amount of hot dogs over the past three months -- at about $150 per Sunday before being told to leave. Public outrage over their ouster came quickly but perhaps too emotionally without benefit of all the facts.

The Tejkls, though, are the kind of people the city should be embracing.

"I love their passion," Dave Gustafson, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority and a key figure in Riverpark operations, told the Herald Editorial Board in an interview.

But with the city at risk over liability concerns, the cooking could not be allowed, he said. Commercial kitchens operate under strict regulations in order to sharply reduce risk, and those have been allowed at Riverpark. Vendor guidelines for small individual functions do not exist yet.

Gustafson credits Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston for performing due diligence on park policies and not rushing into new rules and modifications that could backfire. We agree.

Overall, he noted, feedback has been very positive from nonprofits and other applicants who hold events at Riverwalk. November's Taste of Manatee restaurant festival enjoyed its largest attendance ever with its first event there.

"We know everything's going very well," Gustafson said.

While we sympathize with the Tejkls' frustration and anger, the city must safeguard this fine public investment. That said, we encourage city leaders to speed up the policy-setting process. And we hope those policies, one way or another, allow charitable people like the Tejkls to spread goodwill through their generosity.

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