BRADENTON -- City leaders with eloquent statements filled the stage at Rossi Park Monday morning, but none more aptly captured the spirit of the new Riverwalk they were celebrating than a couple of citizens who ambled by.
“Bradenton needs something to keep people wanting to live here,” said Lori Diamant-Abdulla, as she pushed a stroller carrying her twin babies. “This makes me want to stay.”
A few park benches away, Julie Pritchard shared her thoughts on the 1.5-mile collection of arts, sports and leisure offerings to be built over the next year.
“I didn’t know at first whether this was going to be a good thing or a bad thing,” said Pritchard, who has been taking daily walks along Bradenton’s riverfront for about seven years. “Now, I’m actually glad they’re doing more with this area. Now, when my grandkids come to visit me, they’ll have something to do.”
Hope for a better future, tempered with a bit of skepticism, is what the $6.2 million Riverwalk project has become known for since it first began taking shape in the early 2000s. Monday’s early-morning ground-breaking ceremony, which drew several hundred to Rossi Park, was intended to put remaining doubts to rest.
“I’ve heard quite a bit of ‘Will it really happen? Let’s wait and see,’” said Sherod Halliburton, executive director of the Central Community Redevelopment Agency and one of scores of community leaders who attended Monday’s celebration. “But that’s now going to change.”
Paid for through bond financing, the Riverwalk is intended to satisfy public needs expressed over several years of input.
They include expanded, shaded lawn and play areas; showcases of nature including a botanical walk and discovery marsh; more space for festivals and concerts; a skate park, beach volleyball courts, and launching areas for kayaks, canoes and regattas; and public art sprinkled throughout.
“This is going to set the tone for a lot of things in the future,” said Bob Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. “It makes space for so many different types of venues that haven’t existed before.”
Plans for Riverwalk first sprouted in the early 2000s, when city officials began exploring how to revitalize downtown Bradenton and its surrounding areas through a master plan called “Downtown by Design.”
Meetings with business and community leaders, numerous public workshops and questionnaires gathered through the Internet led a planning firm in 2007 to come up with redevelopment goals that included “more access and enhancements to the Riverfront, the downtown’s biggest asset.”
In early 2010, working with a group of students from the University of South Florida, city officials began gathering more questionnaires and holding public gatherings that led to finalized plans for the Riverwalk.
“This was really designed by you,” Dale Weidemiller, Riverwalk’s volunteer project manager, told the crowd gathered Monday morning.
The project’s roots in public input are one reason why David Brain, an urban development expert who teaches at Sarasota’s New College, sees a promising future for Riverwalk.
“They involved people early on and gave people a chance to not only react to ideas, but to put forward ideas,” Brain said. “That’s what gets people’s hopes up and gets them to a place where they can imagine a future that’s better than where things are now.”
The other keys to making Riverwalk a lasting success, Brain said, are holding a constant flow of events that make use of the new amenities, and ensuring Riverwalk remains a part of downtown Bradenton with pedestrian-friendly paths.
“You build the pieces, and then you start to fill in the connections,” he said. “You fill in the rest of the pieces over time.”