Year in review: Bradenton moved forward in 2013

HERALD STAFF REPORTDecember 29, 2013 

It was a year of new openings, new sports and big development dreams in Manatee County.

The Herald takes a look back at some of the biggest stories from 2013 in the Bradenton area:

Long Bar Pointe

What was most certainly the most controversial development of the year in Manatee ended quietly when the proposal for a Comprehensive Plan map amendment was withdrawn before a scheduled County Commission meeting in January.

A meeting earlier this year on a Comprehensive Plan amendment went through the night and into the next morning as hundreds of environmentalists and residents protested the developers' plans to build a mixed-use development complete with a five-star hotel and a marina. The developers said the project offered huge benefits to the county and would be an economic engine for west Manatee.

Developers Carlos Beruff of Medallion Home of Bradenton and Larry Lieberman of the Barrington Group Inc. of Sarasota want to build on 463 acres near where 75th Street West intersects with 53rd Avenue West.

Project plans originally envisioned a maximum of 1,086 single family homes, 1,687 low-rise multi-family

homes, 844 high-rise multi-family homes, a 300-room hotel, a marina and canal, two 36,000-square-foot offices, a 60,000-square-foot shopping center, 60,000 square feet of specialty retail and an 84,000-square-foot conference center, according to county documents.

The most controversial aspect of the project was a marina and boardwalk, which would have required mangroves to be cut. The developers withdrew the request for the marina at the last minute.

Over the summer, environmental and civic groups banded together to oppose the project, including ManaSota-88, the Sierra Club, Stop the Skyway Resort Project, Save Our Manatee Shoreline and Bay Life Preservers. In August, more than 1,000 people showed up to discuss proposed land-use changes that would have altered the character of the property in an environmentally sensitive area bordering pristine Sarasota Bay.

At that meeting, county commissioners nixed a comp plan text amendment proposed by developers. They OK'd a map amendment after Beruff and Lieberman pulled their plans for a marina.

UPDATE: The developers who own the land are likely to return to the County Commission with a revised development plan in the coming months. The developers already have some approvals to build on the 463 acres.

Bradenton Housing Authority

The executive director of the Bradenton Housing Authority and his special projects manager were both fired in September after federal officials raided the authority's offices, taking payroll and personnel records as well as a computer server in an investigation.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that Wenston DeSue, former executive director, and Stephany West, former special projects director and DeSue's girlfriend, routinely worked fewer than 40 hours a week and billed the housing authority for work time during personal excursions, including a trip to Jamaica.

HUD informed Darcy Branch, Bradenton Housing Authority interim executive director, the investigation is the next step before an indictment, which is likely coming "sooner rather than later."

In its report, HUD found DeSue failed to submit any leave slips since 2009, letting work pay for his time March 14-18 in Jamaica with West. West also spent an extra day March 13 in Jamaica, according to HUD. The couple also traveled to Busch Gardens in Tampa on April 9, Aug. 6 and Aug. 12, according to the report. HUD also cites April 1 as another day West was on leave without putting in for vacation or sick time. The report does not include all HUD findings during its investigation, according to the letters.

BHA board member Lois Gerber said HUD also discovered the authority paid for West and DeSue to attend at least one of President Barack Obama's inaugurations.

The authority is facing a $3.9 million deficit this year.

UPDATE: The Bradenton Housing Authority board has launched a national search for a new director, advertising nationally in trade publications. Branch, the former finance director, continues to serve as the interim executive director. The board will discuss executive director candidates at its January meeting.

Rowing at Benderson Park

After more than three years of preparations and pitches, the Manatee-Sarasota area in September landed the 2017 World Rowing Championship.The area beat out competing cities from around the world and was selected by the sport's international body to host the competition, which officials say will bring millions of tourism dollars to the local economy along with as many as 100,000 visitors and more than 1,500 Olympic-caliber athletes from more than 70 countries, as well as a heightened profile for the region on the world stage.

The rowing championships are to be held at Nathan Benderson Park, just south of University Parkway and west of Interstate 75, a former borrow pit that was transformed into what officials bill as the premier rowing venue in North America thanks to more than $40 million in public and private-sector funds.

Government officials from both counties credited their willingness to partner on the efforts to bring rowing to Benderson Park, spearheaded by Manatee native Paul Blackketter of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates. They were confidently optimistic about their chances leading up to the announcement of the 2017 championship bid, made after a unanimous vote of governing officials meeting in South Korea.

And local leaders say the rowing championship bid will have a trickle down effect on Manatee-Sarasota's reputation for sports tourism.

Earlier this month, Benderson Park was chosen to host the 2018 NCAA Division I-III women's rowing championships and four major pentathlon events, including the World Cup Finals in 2014 and 2016, a World Cup first-round event in 2015 and the Olympic team trials in 2016. And IMG Academy in Bradenton was awarded the Division II men's and women's track and field championships for 2016 and 2017.

Bradenton struck out, however, on bids to host the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the football championship for Division III, and the Division II baseball championships.

UPDATE: Manatee-Sarasota will host an international dragon boat festival in 2014 featuring more than 3,000 breast cancer survivors from 12 countries as a tune-up to the rowing events. The International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission's Participatory Dragon Boat Festival is slated for Oct. 24-26 at Benderson Park.

Manatee Performing Arts

The year started with a retirement. The old Riverfront Theatre, home for decades to the Manatee Players, closed. In its place, the long-anticipated Manatee Performing Arts Center opened in the spring with a stunning production of "Miss Saigon."

The $15 million center also hosted an even more impressive staging of "Les Miserables" over the summer.

The new center, at 502 Third Ave. W., is home to Stone Hall, which has a proscenium stage and seats nearly 400 people, plus the more intimate Bradenton Kiwanis Studio theatre, which seats about 100.

The studio theater debuted with a hit production of "Always... Patsy Cline." The center can comfortably host shows in both theaters at the same time. During the run of the relatively quiet "Patsy Cline" show, a rousing production of "Grease" was going on in Stone Hall, and there was no "bleed-through" of sound into the studio theater.

Besides being a more comfortable setting for patrons, Stone Hall offers enhanced technical features and allows Manatee Players to stage shows that would never have been possible at Riverfront Theatre. The one complaint expressed by some Manatee Players patrons is the shortage of parking. The best places to park are the city lot just to the east of the performing arts center, and one of the first two floors of the parking garage just to the west.

Valet parking is also available for $5.

UPDATE: The Manatee Players has shows scheduled at the Performing Arts Center through May 18. January shows are The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Stepping Out. Check out manateeplayers.com/pdf/inaugural_season2013-14.pdf for more information.

Mall at University Town Center

Ground was broken for the new Mall at University Town Center in late 2012, but the project really heated up in 2013.

The $315 million, two-story luxury mall will house about 115 stores and six sit-down restaurants -- about half of which will be new to the market -- in 880,000 square feet along University Parkway near Interstate 75.

The past year saw confirmations of several of those stores and restaurants, including The Capital Grille, Cheesecake Factory, Kona Grill, Seasons 52, American Eagle Outfitters and Smoothie King, along with mall anchors Macy's, Dillard's and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Leasing is "pretty much where it needs to be," general manager Octavio Ortiz told the Herald earlier this week. The project is expected to involve more than 1,000 construction jobs.

Taubman Centers, Inc., and Benderson Development Company, LLC are partnering on the project, located just to the north of Nathan Benderson Park. The addition of the mall and the rowing championships and other large events planned there have officials in Manatee and Sarasota counties concerned about the effects on traffic at the University Parkway/I-75 intersection and on surrounding roadways.

UPDATE: The grand opening is of the mall is scheduled for Oct. 16, 2014. Its website, themallatuniversitytowncenter.com, includes a countdown ticker that is updated to the month, day, hour and minute. Mall officials should be making an official announcement of a partial list of stores soon.

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