SARASOTA -- Bradenton's other nickname--Bradentucky -- isn't the most pleasant moniker to leaders of the Friendly City.
Projects and partnerships including Riverwalk at the Anthony T. Rossi Waterfront Park and a renovated McKechnie Field are helping the city shed the derogatory name, said Dave Gustafson, the city's executive director of Downtown Development Authority, speaking Friday at the Congress of New Urbanism Florida Summit held at New College of Florida.
"That's what's making Bradenton no longer Bradentucky," Gustafson told the crowd, filled with public officials and city planners.
The $6.2 million linear park along the Manatee River that opened in 2012 served as a panel discussion on Great Waterfonts where Gustafson did a show-and-tell presentation of how the city fought against project doubters who predicted it would become a homeless hangout rather than a tourist destination.
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"Police estimated prior to Riverwalk's opening, that upward of 15,000 people were out there, and half were homeless," Gustafson said. "The first-year attendance over 400,000 people have come to the Riverwalk."
The success continues to build today as nearby businesses stayed busy in January. One restaurant on Old Main, which Gustafson declined to name, said they saw sales increase by 56 percent year-over-year for the first three weeks of January. The DaVinci Machines Exhibit at the Municipal Auditorium has also helped boost South Florida Museum's sales revenue by 17 percent, he added.
"Whatever we're doing, it's working," he said.
The challenge continues to be convincing more folks from Sarasota to visit Bradenton.
"People always say I don't want to come to Bradenton," because they say they get lost or there's nothing to do, Gustafson said. "We always had this chip on our shoulder."
Historic preservation activist Kafi Benz of Sarasota said she thinks Bradenton is hampered by Manatee County's branding.
"I think Bradenton suffers from the fact that Manatee County has established itself as Bradenton in the minds of many people," Benz said. "Nobody knows the southern boundary of the city of Bradenton. They have no idea what the size of the city is or distinctness from Manatee County. I think the branding you have to go after to establish the city itself as an entity."
To Gustafson, an imaginary border doesn't affect much.
"When our tourists come into the community or businesses come into our community, a bell doesn't go off in their car and say I'm now in the county or I'm now in Sarasota or I'm on Anna Maria Island," he said.
Karin Murphy, city of Sarasota's Urban Design Studio director, also has done some city planning in Bradenton. She said that the planning and branding balance rests with residents.
"What always comes through from our citizens is they don't want to be a Tampa. They don't want to be a Miami," she said.
So some of that comes into a regional partnership to get both Sarasota and Manatee counties to plan areas like the US 41 corridor and University Parkway where urban sprawl causes the different jurisdictions to blend, but a lack of money means there's no quick solution, she said.
For instance, she has put water taxi connections for the region in every master plan she has worked on to connect the Bradenton-Sarasota communities -- and they're still not implemented because of funding. When the two cities and counties work together to get funding for transportation planning, they have a fighting chance against Tampa and Miami.
"We're gorgeous by the water. Our strength is in that critical mass. It's difficult for us to compete against Tampa, Orlando, Miami to get transit. We're lucky to get a new bus," Murphy said. "How do we overcome that? It is through that synergy together and demonstrating that those investments are doing what the numbers say and in producing that return that sprawl is not."
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.