Saturday evening's inaugural Crystal Gala to celebrate the grand opening of the Manatee Performing Arts Center also marked another milestone in the blossoming of downtown Bradenton into a vibrant cultural destination.
The story about the development of this glistening new landmark reveals much about the generosity of civic-minded residents and organizations; commitment and perseverance to a cause over the course of a decade; and the united spirit of a community.
The new home of the award-winning Manatee Players theater troupe and the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton is poised to become a community activity center and host all manner of cultural and civic events, educational programs, concerts, forums, receptions and more.
Combined with Riverwalk's popularity as a destination, the performing arts center gives downtown another cultural cornerstone. The Bradenton "brand" also includes the South Florida Museum, ArtCenter Manatee and Village of the Arts. The new Hampton Inn & Suites, thoroughly rejuvenating the beloved old Riverpark Hotel, will be another key piece to downtown's resurgence.
The Manatee Players previewed the performing arts center with a soft opening in March while construction continued. "Miss Saigon" quickly established the main stage and theater as its own work of art.
The recently completed Kiwanis Hall on the second floor is another gem, playing host to the gala's surf-and-turf dinner for some 250 guests and the first Kiwanis meeting there on Tuesday.
Kiwanis marked the significant occasion of the club's move to the heart of downtown with a ceremonial mention at Tuesday's luncheon of the organization's generous contributions to construction of the center -- over $1 million. The Kiwanis Club's commitment to community improvement continues to be remarkable.
Herald entertainment writer Marty Clear attended the gala, and his report Sunday contained several quotes that bear repeating for the excitement and joy that several principal players expressed that evening.
Janene Witham, the executive director of the Manatee Players, reveled in the monumental accomplishment borne out of a strong partnership between the community and the troupe:
"Just this week I've had a chance to take a breath and look around and appreciate what we've done here. Every time I turn a corner and see something else we've accomplished, I'm in awe, and I'm so humbled and grateful to the community."
Rick Kerby, the artistic director of the Players, focused on the future artistic potential for such a state-of-the-art performance palace:
"I think we proved ourselves in the old theater. Now all we can do is dream bigger."
The Manatee Players are thinking ahead in other ways, too, charting improvements in the physical facility that include a third floor in the coming years.
As has been well documented in this space and elsewhere in the Herald, the value of the arts to economic development, cultural tourism and a city's quality of life is huge. The creative class is drawn to places with broad cultural landscapes, and that will bring very positive growth.
The City of Bradenton and Manatee County are proving quite adept at coming up with visionary projects, committing resources and fulfilling goals. Downtown's Riverwalk debuted last October, and the county is creating several more nature preserves.
People from outside Manatee are taking notice, too. The Manatee Performing Arts Center builds on that momentum.