A promising future for Bradenton's Village of the Arts

January 12, 2014 

Village of the Arts tour

BRADENTON HERALD

The city of Bradenton has struggled for years to improve the 14th Street West corridor and the Village of the Arts. With both on the city's southern flank, this key gateway deserves a sharp focus after the starts-and-stops of the past, several crippled by the Great Recession and its lingering impacts.

Today's a new day, and a bright one at that for Village of the Arts. Upon Riverwalk's completion in October 2012, the city forged ahead with a well constructed strategy to improve the eclectic artist colony.

After a year-long visioning process that gathered up neighborhood business owners and residents as well as other stakeholders, the result is a master plan called Village Tapestry. City leaders are reviewing the carefully crafted plan with approval anticipated later this year.

The road to success

How this came about merits a review of recent history -- to demonstrate how Bradenton residents united during the recession, determined to come out of the gloomy abyss by laying the foundation for economic revitalization.

The village's citizen-driven visioning process mirrors several others the city has undertaken over the past decade.

The first, under the auspices of Bradenton's Downtown Development Authority, led to the Downtown by Design master planning document in 2007. One of the key recommendations in that report called for the development of a cultural organization as another tool in the economic progesss of the city.

That idea was quickly adopted, Realize Bradenton was born and another community brainstorming exercise took place over much of 2008. The resulting arts, culture and heritage master plan adopted an idea that had been bandied about for decades -- a Manatee River waterfront park.

Not too surprising, yet another community visioning drill occurred under the leadership of Realize Bradenton to determine the park's amenities.

Today, Riverwalk stands as a testament to the strong will and resolve of the residents here to improve the city and the positive synergy between various public agencies and private organizations. The park has proven to be immensely popular with residents and visitors alike, and foreign languages can frequently be heard among the strollers and gawkers.

This upward trajectory indicates success for the Village of the Arts master plan. Other developments nearby will be valuable, too, in attracting people to the colorful arts colony, now known across Florida and the nation.

Here's another reason to be confident about village improvements: Under the dynamic leadership of Johnette Isham, Realize Bradenton won a significant award in September. The nonprofit organization was honored as the "Outstanding Public Interest Group of the Year" by the American Planning Association, Florida Chapter.

Spotlight now on village

Only weeks after the opening of Riverwalk, the city quickly launched a Village of the Arts visioning exercise -- another sign of the aggressive nature of Bradenton's push for economic revitalization.

Most impressive is the Village Tapestry's short- and long-term projects with concrete goals set in two-year increments and then years out.

Initial plans call for repainting the dull black streetlamp pole and bring bright colors into play to complement the village's kaleidoscopic 1920s and '30s cottages, which serve as both residences and galleries, studios, cafes and other shops. With new wayfaring signs and a new logo embedded into the pavement, the enclave will gain a stronger visual presence.

Also on the short-term list: one or two rain gardens and the exploration of green solutions to street flooding and the use of trolleys and pedicabs during events.

Street and sidewalk improvements, set for the future, are being designed to also help define the neighborhood as unique.

The city's effort at branding the village as an eclectic attraction includes the 2012 installation of a colorful winged sculpture called "Chrysalis Launcher." The piece stands as a welcome sign at one of the village's entries, the corner of Ninth Street West and 12th Avenue West.

With the Pittsburgh Pirates spring home, McKechnie Field, and two breweries poised to open by March, the village should gain new visitors thanks to these neighbors. And Realize Bradenton is expanding the footprint of the wildly popular ArtSlam event to the village in order to draw additional foot traffic.

Hailed as Florida's largest art community with more than 30 businesses spread across 42 acres, the village owes a debt of thanks to the city. Bradenton began working to revitalize the once crumbling neighborhood back in the late 1990s. The Artists Guild of Manatee, another nonprofit, was formed in 1999 to launch the village.

The current state of success will soon gain fresh momentum under Village Tapestry.

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