Incumbent Mayor Wayne Poston and his two challengers, Warren Merriman and Eleuterio Salazar Jr., squared off Thursday in their second mayoral debate leading up to the Nov. 8 elections.
Like the first debate on Sept. 15 at the Tiger Bay Club, Poston was the object of attack from his two opponents who once again never challenged one another’s positions during the debate. The candidates took on hot topics such as the annual Bradenton Area River Regatta, traffic, growing the Ninth Street West entertainment district and retaining millennials in the city.
Poston said the most pressing issue facing the city is and always has been public safety.
“That’s always been the reason for local government,” Poston said. “As police commissioner, I work hard to make sure people of this city are safe. I understand what our police officers and firefighters do everyday, and I care about what they do and it’s an important job.”
Salazar challenged that statement, saying Bradenton residents are leaving the city because it is an unsafe environment, but Poston countered with recent reports that show Bradenton as one of Florida’s fastest growing cities and a recent report that the city is the 46th fastest growing city in the country. In April, WalletHub also named Bradenton as the 25th best small city to start a business.
Poston also said a pressing issue is the growing heroin problem in Manatee County, but noted, “You can’t police your way to a solution.”
Merriman disagreed and said a recent report titling Manatee County as drug death capital of Florida requires a stronger public safety response. Claiming to have cleaned up 14th Street West during his time with the Bradenton Police Department, the former deputy chief, who was fired for and convicted of misdemeanor theft, said, “We have to work together with nonprofits, but enforcement can take the drug dealers off the street.”
Poston was criticized for an appearance of slow economic development, but the mayor countered with the success of Riverwalk, a proposed new downtown hotel, award-winning improvements at McKechnie Field, a $12 million expansion of the South Florida Museum, new downtown businesses and a growing Village of the Arts.
“Forty-six percent of residents in the village are artists and we hope to bring that up to 52 percent soon,” Poston said. “There are five new restaurants in the village. There are a lot of other things going on besides Riverwalk.”
Merriman said he has a strategic plan to bring new business to Bradenton while Salazar said cleaning up the city is his first priority.
“The mayor is focusing strictly on the economic side and not the down side,” Salazar said. “What are we doing about the crime rates and drug issues? I have a plan in place, but we must ensure the city is cleaned up first.”
On retaining millennials, all of the candidates agree that the extension of Riverwalk will play an important role. Poston said the eastward expansion would focus on activities for fitness and the active lifestyle, “something the millennials are clamoring for. We want to punch through Third Avenue for more walkability and we are looking at some very interesting lifestyle things we can do.”
Merriman said increasing activities on Riverwalk would go a long way to give millennials more things to do. Merriman suggested a mayor’s 5K run where everyone would try to beat the mayor and “get a pink T-shirt.”