VILLAGE OF THE ARTS
Village of the Arts could see 2014 as its breakout year in Bradenton as the eclectic neighborhood moves forward.
Riverwalk is complete and development there is humming along, and the Old Main Street area is receiving a renewed interest thanks to both Riverwalk and a new hotel. That leaves Village of the Arts as the next downtown cog to kick into high gear.
"I don't think there's any question that it will because of all of things we're doing out there," Mayor Wayne Poston said.
City leaders are continuing to examine the Village Tapestry, a master plan for Village of the Arts improvements that is expected to be approved this year. The visioning document sets out a four-year-plus plan for a new-look Village, and the area is expected to see a jumpstart
even before the plan gets moving.
In February, the black streetlamp poles will better reflect the creative neighborhood after they're painted bright colors, helping to visually define the artist colony. Village artists are also working on a new logo for the neighborhood to embed into the pavement to complement new wayfinding signs to point visitors in the right direction. That will feed into a longer-term plan to improve the village streets and sidewalks and set it apart from other areas of the city.
In March, the Village will become an integral part of the annual Art Slam Festival on Old Main, where artists will create giant papier-mache puppets that will parade through downtown with hopes that tourists will parade their wallets to the Village.
Increased interest in baseball at neighboring McKechnie Field and two new breweries will help pull together the work in the Village this year.
Pirates of the Village
Bradenton might have to thank Pittsburgh first, though, when spring training rolls around. The Pittsburgh Pirates reached the postseason for the first time in 20 years, boosting interest in the team and travel to McKechnie Field on the footsteps of Village of the Arts.
The Pirates have already sold more season tickets for spring training than the team did for the entire 2013 spring training season, said Trevor Gooby, Pirates director of Florida operations. Interest has also been high for single-game tickets, which don't go on sale until Jan. 22 online and Jan. 25 at the box office.
To make way for the added fans, the former Boys & Girls Club next to the stadium is expected to be demolished for parking.
Though not within the boundaries of the Village's existing 42 acres, two new breweries -- Darwin's Brewing Co. and Motorworks Brewing -- are opening in time for spring training. Motorworks could open any day now, while Darwin's aims to be open in March. That could add some hop to business in the neighborhood, well into the summer season for the Bradenton Marauders minor league team.
"It's only going to allow our fans to come to the games and stay in the area, where in the past, there wasn't a lot of things for them to do," Gooby said.
Ideas are being tossed around for different ways to partner with Village businesses and the breweries.
"Hopefully when the breweries open and other businesses open, we'll work with them on something like having their local beers at the stadium, or encourage fans to visit their establishments after the games," Gooby said. "It's definitely our goal to keep people in that area and help people enjoy the area when they're visiting."
Linda Bronkema acknowledges how important McKechnie Field and the Pirates spring training is to the Village. Just steps away from the Village's current border, the baseball fans have brought an influx of business to the galleries and restaurants there, says the owner of Bits & Pieces quilt and fabric shop and immediate past president of the Village of the Arts Guild.
"McKechnie Field draws a lot of people that see the Village," Bronkema said. "They maybe don't shop that day or explore the village because they come for the ballgame. But it registers that we're here, and if they park within the Village, which is free, they might say 'Hey, next time let's take that shop in or let's have our lunch in the Village before we head in.'"
If the partnerships can thrive and the Village Tapestry plan comes together, maybe the Pirates-brewery-arts combination can be something bigger.
"I personally believe that within five years, we're going to see a sports, arts and entertainment district south of downtown," said Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton, which helps support events and the arts in the city.
Another long-range plan, called Artisan Avenue, could play into that. The plan presented to the City Council last year would connect the Village of the Arts to Old Main Street by making innovative transportation and pedestrian improvements to existing alleyways and courtyards.
Growing the Village
Business owners recognize they cannot do it alone in the Village and say they need more businesses to move into the arts district to create more activity and customers.
Bronkema has been in the Village for 12 years and seen it grow from a few shops in the Village of the Arts, spreading to Ninth and 16th Avenues with about 30 shops and restaurants.
"I think we're pretty stable, I'm just looking for good growth. The Village is stable, it's here and it's not going away," she said.
Zoe Von Averkamp, owner and artist at Divine Excess Folk Art Gallery, featuring art by self-taught Florida artists, said that the Village typically sees about 28-30 businesses in operation, and it's time to see that number swell with a diverse mix of shops. Thanks to the success of Arts & Eats, which features international cuisine as well as art for sale across from Von Averkamp's shop, the gallery owner is toying with having evening hours on the weekends to attract diners waiting for a table.
What's needed are destination shops open for longer hours -- perhaps a day spa, salon or coffee shop to draw more women shoppers.
"We need more destination places that will draw people who will then walk around and see everything," she said. The Village's guild plans to invite area business owners for another gathering this year at Arts & Eats to help lure more entrepreneurs to the Village and open a new shop or relocate from somewhere else.
A first important step is to get the borders of the Village expanded -- something that city officials, including the mayor, have said must happen to eliminate the landlocked effect of the district, expanding to include businesses beyond Ninth Avenue and 14th Street. Poston said he expects the overlay expansion to be up for consideration this year.
Arts is an underrated driver for business, according to city leaders.
"The arts are a proven catalyst for economic development because they create jobs and they also make a place that entrepreneurs want to be," Isham said.
From slumlords, naughty tree
The Village was once well-positioned, Poston contends, and will get there again.
"At one time we had more than 60 artists, and the economy hit us in that place just like the whole economy," Poston said. "We think that will come back."
Art itself has been a catalyst for at least one gallery. Gordon Turner, who owns Baobab Tree Gallery with his wife Christine Turner, had a better-than-expected 2013.
"We've been here 10 years, and last year was our absolute, clearly best year by 25 percent. This year it's better than last year by an additional 25 percent," Turner said.
Could it be better this year?
"I have no idea," Turner said, breaking into a hearty laugh. "My goal is to keep it there, to be very frank with you."
One piece of land the mayor hopes to see action on this year is a city-owned 2.6 acres at 1405 14th St. W, the site of the former Manatee Inns.
"Right before the economy went south, we had people interested in building there," he said. "They may be back, or we may be able to sell the concept to someone else."
The tapestry plan envisions that site could be a catalyst for the Village of the Arts to complement pocket parks, green streets and even provide key land for a business incubator.
"My personal dream is to see a mixed-use building with residences on the top floor and office space on the bottom with a coffee shop," Isham said.
Yet, dreams take awhile to form into reality when working in public-private projects, Isham acknowledges, pointing to how far Sarasota has come since she moved there in 1988 before coming to Bradenton.
"It just takes awhile for investment to happen because it's a public and private partnership," she said.
The success is a far cry from the Village's beginnings, when it battled slumlords and had to become inventive to get the attention of the city to help make it a safe neighborhood.
Police weren't doing much about drugs and prostitution at the rundown motels, Turner said, so four galleries banded together in 2004 when Victor Garcia made a tree sculpture featuring male and female genitalia.
"Don't you think that got the attention of downtown? Because they went berserk," Turner said. The story went viral, the city stepped in and a new owner came in and cleaned up the properties. Ever since then, the city has been a great help with the Village, Turner said.
Now instead of erecting a naughty tree, all the Village people have to do is spring into action with city leaders.
"We have to get off our hands and speak up and let the city know what we want now to grow this village," Von Averkamp said. "At times in the past the Village has been too complacent, and so has the city. Now is the time for us to work together with the city and the village people."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.