BRADENTON -- Formula 2 powerboats could be racing down the Manatee River next January, bringing throngs of people to Riverwalk for one of the biggest free festivals downtown has experienced in recent history.
Pittsburgh-based Integrated Strategic Marketing USA has plans to bring a smaller version of the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta to the Manatee River on Jan. 30 and 31, 2015. The yet-to-be-named event is coupled with BMX stunt shows featuring national touring athletes, Zambelli Fireworks display, sand sculptures and a major concert. The Bradenton area would also be a circuit stop for Powerboat Superleague racing, leading up to the national championships in Pittsburgh.
"These powerboats are going to be something spectacular. You're looking at essentially a missile on water," said Michael Dongilli, vice president of ISM-USA. "These things will get up to speeds of 120, 125 miles per hour. They turn on a dime."
Bradenton's friendly relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates helped make this happen. The Pirates organization recommended the festival, and Mike Fetchko, president and managing director of ISM USA, and Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, are both former Pirates employees, helping to create a bond between the allies.
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"The Pittsburgh Pirates are a big partner with a lot of things we do in the region," Fetchko said. Initial talks in Pittsburgh began in summer 2011, weeks before Riverwalk broke ground in September that year. After giving the park room to breathe, talks resumed in earnest over the past year, Falcione said.
The event could easily span both shores of Manatee River, bringing in an esti
mated 75,000 people during the first year to Bradenton and Palmetto. The race festival could also produce an $8 million to $10 million economic impact in the Bradenton area for its first year, according to preliminary data, said Walter Klages, a tourism economist specialist who serves as a consultant for Manatee County.
Event organizers will request permits from the Bradenton City Council on Wednesday to kick off a series of meetings to get approval from the city, county and potentially Palmetto.
"The regatta has lots of components, but when you take its essence, it really celebrates the waters and the environment," Fetchko said. If successful, the festival could turn into an annual event bringing thousands to the Bradenton area.
The grand feature will be the boats zipping down the Manatee River, turning corners at 4Gs. It's easy to see how the event would translate here as parts of the river span a mile wide.
"We've got three rivers, but the Manatee River is much bigger than the Allegheny River," Fetchko said.
The Bradenton area event is planned to be smaller than its Pittsburgh counterpart, which in its 37th year features more than 600,000 spectators during Fourth of July weekend, serving as the largest festival of the year for the western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia's upper panhandle region, Fetchko said.
"The way we structured it, it's free family fun, and that's what we're going to do down here," Fetchko said. "It's going to have a lot of land components with BMX and extreme sports."
The party in Pittsburgh celebrates its three rivers -- the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio -- with boat races, beach fun, fireworks and more in the shadows of the city's sports stadiums, bridges, Point State Park and Mt. Washington as the largest inland regatta in the world.
"In many ways it's a vacation destination for hundreds of thousands of people in the region because it's free entertainment," Fetchko said. "It's water activity with Powerboat sanctioned races. It's over Fourth of July weekend, so we have one of the largest choreographed fireworks display in the country."
Logistics and details need to be worked out by 2015, and sponsors are still being sought to make the event happen.
"You've gotta really plan this correctly and do it right the first year out," Fetchko said. "We won't try to do three days, we won't try to bring everything -- the three-ring circus that the Pittsburgh regatta is."
It's unknown how much Palmetto will play into the festival, what bands would play the concert, how transportation and parking need to be coordinated and how the two bridges come into play connecting Palmetto to Bradenton for the mile oval course and fireworks. Officials are already searching for ways to ensure marine life is protected during the event.
Dave Gustafson, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, pointed to planning for the Blues Festival and DeSoto Seafood Festival as ways to help ease traffic and parking concerns, including having trolleys and cycle rickshaws, also called pedicabs.
"We'll meet with MCAT again, we'll meet with Siesta Trolley again, we'll meet with Jolley Trolley again and do all the things we need to do," he said. "Will there be some hiccups? There always is, but if everything works perfect, there's nothing we need to work on for next year."
The concert will be one of the more anticipated portions of the event, closing out the day of racing along with fireworks. Two smaller amphitheater concerts during the day-and-a-half festival will create activity before the headlining concert, which in Pittsburgh has featured Jefferson Starship, Three Dog Night, America and country star Craig Morgan.
With the decreased focus on alcohol and the folks close to the action, the race is in many ways unlike the offshore Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix on Lido Beach, held Fourth of July weekend, where people camp out on the beach and imbibe.
"It's not like offshore racing where the boats are cumbersome," Dongilli said. "You can get up close and watch these things and see them fly down the river at 125 mph. Believe me, it's nothing like you've seen before."
The Pittsburgh festival is a dry event to encourage a family atmosphere, and discussions are being explored to find ways to bridge the gap between kid friendly and a place where adults near the event zone can have a brew while encouraging people to partake in Bradenton's bars and restaurants.
"We've had great discussions with Dave and his team and Elliott and his team that we think this should be dry," Fetchko said. "There's enough places in Pittsburgh to go get a beer ... just like there is here."
Renaissance by Riverwalk
While the regatta will embrace both sides of the Manatee River, Riverwalk will be a focal point. Mayor Wayne Poston said the boat races are a perfect example of how Bradenton is working to take advantage of the river.
"We think it could be part of what we've been trying to program on the river to take advantage of the river," Poston said.
Longterm plans see Riverwalk expanding to the east, which could open up greater possibilities for the festival, he said.
"The more things we do, the more we realize we want the Riverwalk to be bigger," Poston said. "We realized that the day after it opened."
If it wasn't for Riverwalk and the business created from the linear park, this event wouldn't have happened, according to officials.
"It's really hard to say where this will grow," Gustafson said. "You've got Riveria South Shores out there, you've got Scott Tibbetts' property at Tarpon Pointe, you've got the boardwalk that connects all that. The future's bright."
The regatta helps fill a gap between the Bradenton Blues Festival, Manatee County Fair, Major League Soccer spring training and Pittsburgh Pirates spring training to keep the downtown core humming.
"When an area of a community is going through a renaissance, the best thing you can do is create activity year-round and create new activity year-round," Falcione said.
The goal is to get first-time visitors to drive here from a 90-mile radius and convert them into regular tourists, and hopefully, eventually move here or start a business, Falcione said.
The event is also going to be marketed and promoted in greater Pittsburgh, including at the Three Rivers Regatta to get Pittsburghers down here early before spring training.
"When you say regatta, you'll say Bradenton area, and that's the goal," he said.
A downtown party spanning from Bradenton to Palmetto is something that can "reinvigorate the urban core," Falcione said. Having the powerboat races coupled with events like the Manatee County Fair the week before, along with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, helps create momentum for the city, Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said.
"I think what's going on in the river and surrounding areas should be positive for the whole Palmetto area," she said. "We're hoping some way we can play into it."
A briefing is being planned before the Palmetto City Commission concerning the event and to gauge the city's interest in participating, Bryant said.
Palmetto's Riverside Park could help compliment the event because three new boat ramps are in the works for the park and should be completed by the event, helping beautify the riverfront, Bryant said.
Bradenton would be happy to have Palmetto partner, Gustafson said, imagining places like Regatta Pointe Marina playing a role in the festival.
"From a Bradenton standpoint, it's extremely important that we continue to partner with both sides of the river. Palmetto is extremely important to us. There's opportunities for both cities," Gustafson said.
"The river that divides us, connects us," he said.
It's possible that places beyond Palmetto could see some festival-related action, but officials don't want to overload the area, especially Anna Maria Island. At the same time, the event will focus on the main events first before branching out too far beyond Bradenton and Palmetto.
"I think we're going to be conservative and do the little things really, really well," Falcione said. "The first year is vital to the future."
Before details can be worked out, the event needs the OK from area governments, which includes permission to use marketing money from bed taxes to promote the event.
Along with Bradenton City Council's considerations for permit approval on Wednesday, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority will also be asked to approve the event and funnel activity toward the regatta.
The Manatee County Tourist Development Council will be asked April 21 to recommend a sponsorship for the County Commission to approve.
"If we do this right, we're going to celebrate the assets of Bradenton, the Manatee River, this beautiful Riverwalk, your arts community and other things we don't even know yet," Fetchko said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.