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New Riverwalk takes shape

BRADENTON -- Area residents Robyn Wilkes and Clifford Curley know what they’re looking for in a waterfront destination.

They’ve seen it before.

The Chattanooga, Tenn.-area transplants said restaurants and major attractions -- not lovely landscapes and boardwalks -- hold the key to a successful Bradenton Riverwalk renovation.

“I feel strongly that you must get restaurants and commerce down here or you just have a nice place for homeless people,” said Wilkes, the orchestra director at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, during a public meeting on Riverwalk plans.

Wilkes moved to Manatee County about 18 months ago after living in Chattanooga for 15 years. She runs the Green Bridge once a week with the Bradenton Runners Club.

She and Curley, who lived for eight years in Signal Mountain, Tenn., said that whether it’s the Manatee River or the Tennessee River, folks won’t flock to the water unless there’s something like Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium or vibrant dining district.

“Without a concentrated plan to have restaurants run by private industry ... there’s no reason for me to come downtown,” Curley said.

The city’s Downtown Development Authority is planning a $6.2 million renovation of Riverwalk and Rossi Park. On Wednesday, project administrator Dale Weidemiller and representatives from Kimley-Horn Associates and NDC Construction showed off final plans for the project, which could be completed by the first quarter of 2012, to about 100 people at Bradenton Municipal Auditorium.

Plans for a 1.5-mile stretch of the Riverwalk from just east of the Green Bridge past Manatee Memorial Hospital include a family fun zone at Rossi Park that features an interactive fountain, a skate park, sand volleyball courts, several open lawns, a day dock near the Green Bridge, and improvements to the bandshell, Clock Tower Plaza and Memorial Plaza.

There is only a tentative plan for a restaurant, a public-private partnership with Courtyard by Marriott.

Weidemiller did not agree with Wilkes and Curley. He said restaurants and other merchants will commit to Bradenton after they see an improved Riverwalk.

“You have to have attractions downtown, and then the business will come,” Weidemiller said.

Weidemiller said the impetus of the project is to boost downtown businesses by engaging local consumers.

“I’m not trying to attract someone from Wisconsin. I want people from west Bradenton, Bayshore and Lakewood Ranch to come down and enjoy the waterfront,” he said.

The day dock, to be located just east of the Green Bridge, and skate park drew rave reviews from residents as did the interactive fountain.

Chris Cantwell, who runs a public skate park in Sarasota, said he was “very grateful for you guys even having it (the skate park) in the project” and clapped quietly when told the location of the park could move from a grassy area east of the DeSoto Bridge closer to the water.

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