MANATEE -- With the aroma of barbecue wafting over Saturday's inaugural Bradenton Area Riverwalk Regatta like an old friend, race spectators and festival-goers alike enjoyed the perfect weather and an abundance of events.
Even before the festivities got under way at 11 a.m., early birds were found checking out the prime seating along the Manatee River in anticipation of the noon qualifying of the Formula 2 tunnel hull boats from the Powerboat Superleague series.
JoAnn Davis and Kathy Morris were among the first to arrive, setting up their chairs for the day at around 7:15 a.m.
"We had a real fear of finding parking, but it worked out well," said Davis. "We didn't know what to expect, but once everyone realizes what a great event this is going to be, next year I'll get here at 5 a.m. and take a nap in my van if I have to."
Davis said they were staying until the
much-anticipated Zambelli International fireworks show at 6:40 p.m., billed to be the largest show the Gulf coast has yet seen.
About 50 yards away at the Riverwalk amphitheater, XPOGO competitors Nick Ryan and Ryan O'Malley, both Bradenton natives, and Orlando's Michael Mena were already warming up for their kickoff event at 11 a.m. Ryan said he was thrilled to be performing before his home crowd.
"We do these shows all over and this is the first time we get to do it in front of a local crowd," he said. "It's going to be an exciting day and it's great to be able to have family and friends come out for the first time to see what we actually do at an event like this."
A little farther away, the first annual DeSoto Historical Society kids fishing tournament was still ongoing with about 60 young hands gripping poles seeking out what the Manatee River had to offer, many getting their first fishing experience.
"We had about 40 sign up before the event and another 20 show up this morning," said Scott Toedman, DeSoto Historical Society chair of the event. About 20 volunteers from the society helped make Saturday morning a special day for the kids, but more than 300 members of the organization were volunteering throughout the day's activities.
"We were prepared for 150 kids, but this is a first-year event and we'll expect more next year," said Toedman. "This is all about the kids and introducing them to fishing and sportsmanship. The kids have come from everywhere so some of them have never been to Riverwalk before so it's a great opportunity to just get them out here and have some fun."
By noon, the scene on Riverwalk had changed dramatically as the steady flow of people from the morning became a packed crowd. Atop the Green Bridge, a gapless row of heads from one end of the bridge to the other peered down onto the Manatee River as the F2 boats came out for qualifying. The amphitheater was standing-room-only for the first BMX stunt show and crowds were steadily gathering at the main stage for an all-day music event featuring Sam Woolf and Jefferson Starship.
Spectators coming in after noon were smiling as they arrived, give reports of manageable traffic. The staggered events from the morning to evening appeared to draw people who wanted to show up at different times for different events and that seems to have helped relieve early traffic concerns.
"In talking to our police officers, it's working out really well," said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, who was smiling and welcoming people along restaurant row. "We believed this was going to be successful, but you never know with a first time event so to tell you the truth, I'm relieved to see so many people here. Everything is going smooth. We have this whole place wired and we can see everything from the command center and it's all going really well."
Reports from Palmetto were equally good with few incidents. There was one injury vehicle crash reported around 12:40 p.m. Bradenton Police and EMS responded to the accident and public works staff had the road cleared to traffic within 30 minutes.
By 2 p.m., an estimated 30,000 people lined the Green Bridge, according to Bradenton Public Works Director Claude Tankersley, calculating six square feet per person. Another estimated 15,000 packed into Riverwalk and taking into account the crowds for the early event and more arrivals just wanting to see the fireworks show, organizers easily met their minimal goals of about 50,000 people for the inaugural event.
The Green Bridge was reopened by 10:20 p.m. Saturday.
"We are ecstatic," said Integrated Marketing Strategy president Mike Fetchko, who organized the entertainment for the regatta. "We're really happy with the flow of traffic and the flow of people. We're seeing people from all generations, from retirees to families to single people to teens."
Fetchko said all of the good things organizers were hoping for were coming true and all of the major concerns about traffic and parking did not come to fruition. "What has made this a beautiful event is the way Bradenton, Palmetto and Manatee County embraced it and you can see the results of that," he said.
While the regatta has been deemed a huge success, more can be done to make it even better next year Fetchko said. A post-event meeting will take place Tuesday to determine what worked and what did not to make sure next year's regatta is even more successful and convenient for spectators.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.