BRADENTON -- If for any reason you were near downtown Bradenton and weren't aware the ninth annual Gulfcoast Rhythm & Ribs Music Fest was this weekend, the smells and sounds emanating from McKechnie Field likely got your attention.
Some major changes to this year's event are paying off for organizers and its beneficiary, United Community Center, which focuses its programs on local children in a variety of ways to include summer programs for teens, homework assistance, substance abuse prevention and cultural and physical education.
"That's what this is all about," said one Ribfest organizers Scott Works. "All of the proceeds of this event goes to their programs."
Ribfest moved to downtown Bradenton this year from Palmetto and switched dates from spring to fall. The event used to charge admission, so the biggest change of all was to make it free entry.
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"We have great sponsors and a partnership with the Pittsburgh Pirates that allows us to make this a free event this year," said Works. "It's a great opportunity to just get people to come and, between it being free and in Bradenton, the response has been huge."
Ribfest shattered opening day attendance records Friday, according to Works, although it is difficult to provide numbers with no ticket sales to count. "It was packed with people so it was easy to tell that for a Friday, which is typically been our lighter day, that we had a huge crowd," Works said. Based on last night as an estimate, we expect up to 30,000 people will have passed through here for the weekend."
The event continues noon until 8 p.m. Sunday in the McKechnie Field parking lot at 1611 Ninth S. W. Musical entertainment has ranged from popular local groups to nationally recognized country music artist John Michael Montgomery.
Entertainment the final day includes DemiNova at 2 p.m., Eric Darius on stage at 5 p.m. and rhythm and blues star Joe Thomas at 6:30 p.m.
Works said there was some concern the field's parking space, but it proved ample just as with any Pittsburgh Pirates spring training game or Bradenton Marauders minor league baseball game.
"There is ample parking all around the area," he said. "We have counted more than 2,000 spaces so there is plenty of parking opportunities and we offer a free shuttle service from the lots because we have a great partnership with local businesses."
Free parking is difficult to find, but businesses and churches have opened their lots for fees ranging from $5 to $10.
Randy Minton, a Bradenton resident, said he has gone to Ribfest for years and was excited to see free admission.
"It moved pretty close to where I live," Minton said. "It made it easy to bring my mother out for the day."
Minton said the Ribfest doesn't disappoint as a family event.
"The music and the food brings us out, but mostly the food," he said, noting he would be coming back. It's a response not uncommon from festivalgoers.
"That's the most common thing I heard from people who came Friday," said Works. "So many people leaving said they would be back Saturday and Sunday."