When a community works together, amazing things happen.
The Riverwalk is the fulfillment of a half-century of ideas for the development of downtown Bradenton's waterfront. The process may have been a long one, but the result was definitely worth the wait.
In the 1960s, Bradenton city leaders needed more land for downtown development. Their solution was to add silt from the Manatee River along its banks, adding more than 50 acres. The area was quickly nicknamed "The Sandpile."
In the '70s, many ideas were proposed: amusement park, orange grove, and an attraction inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Denmark.
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Some initial work was completed in the 1980s, including the Anthony T. Rossi Park. Developers planned high-rise condominiums, office buildings and hotels, but most were stalled due to lack of financing.
However, this era brought a Holiday Inn (now the Courtyard by Marriott) and the Plaza del Rio office building.
Fast forward to 2010 when a collaboration of civic, business, and arts leaders realized that downtown Bradenton would benefit from a quality riverfront park.
The citizen-driven planning process was facilitated by Realize Bradenton and combined input from over 1,500 citizens, public charrettes, concepts developed by University of South Florida graduate students, and plans developed by Kimley-Horn, to turn the old Sandpile into today's award-winning Riverwalk.
City of Bradenton elected officials and city staff, with appointed board leaders and staff from the Bradenton Downtown Bradenton Authority, understood that cities compete for residents, visitors, investors, and new businesses.
Creating a high-quality public space, designed for a range of features and events, was pursued as a proven strategy to promote quality of life and attract economic development.
Armed with research from more than 30 studies, city planners acknowledged that parks have a positive impact on nearby property values and tax revenues.
The Riverwalk, which was completed in October 2012, was a catalytic project connecting the physical, social, cultural and economic fabric of downtown. Achieved in less than two years -- from citizen engagement and concept to final plans and construction -- the Riverwalk's completion elevated our "we can get it done" attitude.
Quality public spaces, like the Riverwalk, create communities where people want to live, work, and visit. The creative placemaking strategies that Realize Bradenton employed during the design phase with the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority (2010 and 2011), joined the river's natural beauty with 23 public artworks to create a healthy and attractive linear park.
More shade, environmentally friendly, diverse physical activity, such as boating, walking, biking, skating, with education and play areas, offer something-for-everyone features.
The cohesive, uplifting design created the stage for everyday enjoyment, as well as an inviting backdrop for events, like the Riverwalk Regatta, Blues Festival, Paws in Motion, Dragon Boat Races, Embracing Our Differences, Healthy Kids Day, Manatee Pride, and much more.
These events (and over 60 others) bring new visitors to the Friendly City every week and also offer family-fun to residents 365 days a year.
According to ArtPlace, successful creative placemaking:
Maximizes the potential already available.
Integrates arts and culture into community life.
Creates spaces where people want to go and linger.
Offers a mix of uses that make a place more interesting and engaging.
Establishes a place where businesses want to be.
Fosters connections among people and across diverse backgrounds.
Convinces people that their community can have a thriving future.
So, our Riverwalk, built with a triple bottom line benefit -- people, place, prosperity, provides a tool to leverage ongoing economic growth.
And the future mile-and-half extension to the east of Manatee Memorial Hospital promises to be as impactful a community connector and magnet for new housing, restaurants, and retail.