A fine idea for Bradenton Municipal Auditorium, but permanent lease a stumbling block

July 17, 2014 

As the years-long renaissance of downtown Bradenton continues, additional opportunities arise. The organizers of the wildly successful DaVinci Machines Exhibition in the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium bear witness to that favorable business climate.

Since opening last November, the exhibit's stay has been extended twice thanks to unexpected crowds numbering between 7,000 and 8,000 a month, some from around the region and beyond.

Now exhibit curator Mark Rodgers hopes to expand on that success with long-term occupancy of the auditorium, proposing a permanent lease with the city so he can bring in a variety of shows, exhibits and headline acts.

Already a cultural hot spot with the South Florida Museum, the new Manatee Performing Arts Center and ArtCenter Manatee, downtown would benefit from another major attraction as proposed by Rogers.

While an intriguing idea, though, permanency holds pitfalls.

City officials are talking about demolishing the old and crumbling Manatee Players theater, on the Manatee River waterfront across Old Main Street from City Hall.

That prime piece of property is ripe for redevelopment but the small lot -- only about two-thirds of an acre -- cannot accommodate much -- and certainly not a 20-story tower as permitted for that parcel by the city.

But combine that with the land beneath City Hall, and the prospects change dramatically.

For years, there has been talk of moving City Hall to pave the way for a major riverfront development. A permanent lease on the auditorium could be an impediment, unless any contract allows contingencies for complete redevelopment of the site -- likely leveling the entire building.

Any project for the theater or City Hall sites must align with the city's long-term vision for the riverfront. Bigtime investors would be necessary.

But as the city progresses, that prospect does not seem as unrealistic as in years past.

Already stocked with cultural venues, downtown has evolved into an entertainment and dining destination. Leafy Old Main Street, lined with majestic live oak trees, has been attracting more restaurants and pubs.

This year, the Loaded Barrel Tavern and the SoMa Creek Side restaurant joined the trend. Also, the Market on Main Street became the first convenience store downtown. Corwin's ice cream shop at the Twin Dolphin Marina supplies Riverwalk visitors and locals with cool treats.

The massive River Song luxury apartment complex under construction along Riverwalk behind the Manatee Performing Arts Center will bring hundreds of new residents to the downtown core, one of the keys to a vibrant city.

Realize Bradenton continues to implement the city's arts, culture and heritage master plan, with one element being such popular downtown events as the monthly Main Street Live, concerts in Riverwalk and much more.

With downtown on a hot streak of development, the DaVinci organizers smartly smell opportunity. Their proposal to upgrade and maintain the auditorium at no cost to the city is laudable.

While we appreciate their proposal and commitment to downtown, the city must keep its options open.

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