Two Bradenton organizations make final cut of Knight Foundation's Cities Challenge

BRADENTON -- Catherine Ferrer, community event coordinator for Realize Bradenton, was getting her children ready for school last week when the phone rang. On the other end was a representative from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, announcing that her Realize Bradenton project was named a finalist in the second annual Knight Cities Challenge.

"I couldn't believe it," said Ferrer. "I stopped doing everything I was doing and ended up burning the toast. I was thrilled, thrilled, thrilled."

Her finalist project this year is called "Play Social: Re-imagining the shuffleboard park for all generations," by bringing together people from diverse populations through inter-generational play.

The other finalist from Bradenton is Spark Growth, which operates the Station 2 Innovation Center. Its project, dubbed "Bradenton Innovates," is a "design thinking and strategic doing" project to actively engage citizens in developing community and civic innovations.

"It's basically engaging the community to solve problems or work on issues that the community believes needs work," said Spark Growth's Stan Schultes.

It's the second year a Realize Bradenton project has made it to the finals, with their "Pop Ups for a Purpose" project garnering more than $90,000 out of a $5 million bounty as one of last year's winners. The project focused on harnessing the power of millennial voices to create pop-up spaces all over the city where conversation and community can flourish. The first two pop-up events have been well-attended.

A pop-up event will take place this spring at the Bradenton Shuffleboard Club, and the effort to bridge the gap between millennials and baby boomers got Ferrer thinking it should be a long-term goal.

"We looked at the Knight 2009 community study that showed Bradenton was an emotionally attached community, which is a great thing," Ferrer said. "But when it came to openness and being welcoming, only 7 percent of those millennials polled felt the city was welcoming. So building on the pop ups, which uses under-utilized places, this is already a place where people can come together to socialize and it's located right downtown."

Ferrer said shuffleboard is already growing as a popular sport with millennials. Events in St. Petersburg fill up within two hours of being announced. Her project focuses on bringing that kind of inter-generational enthusiasm to Bradenton.

"When you talk about long-term goals, I think it all starts in the short term," she said. "I want to focus on civic engagement and have the people participating design the events. The long-term message goes back to the study, and that is to send a message to millennials that you are, indeed, welcome in Bradenton."

Ferrer said she's been working with the Bradenton Shuffleboard Club since August and they couldn't be more enthusiastic to be involved.

"They are the most friendly and welcoming people to work with," she said. "They've been wonderful. It's always been my big picture out there that why can't this spot be just as cool as Riverwalk? That's a big goal, and we can start small with physical renovations, but more intangible things that are just as important like event planning and getting people around this game of shuffleboard, which is really fun."

Spark Growth's strategy

Bradenton is well represented in the 158 finalists that will now resubmit their projects in a more detailed presentation.

Spark Growth's Sara Hand said it's important to note that the community engagement process isn't bringing people in and telling them what's wrong and how to solve it.

"It's looking at practices that help people put together projects and develop an actual strategy," she said. "The premise is that we know we have a community that is very bright, capable and are able to contribute much more than they are normally given the opportunity to do."

The process is designed to move citizens from the generalities of providing feedback, "to more involved in the creative process and generate solutions themselves," said Hand, who noted that the basics of the concept have already been tested and proven within the Station 2 Innovation Center.

If chosen as a winner, the meetings will provide refreshments, qualified day-care services and take place at all times of the day to ensure everyone has a chance to participate.

"Everyone needs to feel their input is valued and this environment will achieve that," said Hand. "It's not about focusing on what's wrong. It's about asking what should we do, what can we do and when should we do it. When your citizens are involved at this level, you develop a pattern of working together, get better at it and better prepared to deal with challenges. To even make it as a finalist is a huge stamp of approval from a valued organization to what we are trying to do here in a civic, social place. We hope we are chosen as a winner, but however it turns out, we are honored to be chosen out of thousands of applications."

Applications for the Knight Cities Challenge were down from the inaugural challenge that garnered over 7,000 submissions. This year, more than 4,500 applications were submitted for projects in 26 communities where Knight-Ridder at one time owned newspapers, including the Bradenton Herald. The finalists come from a diverse array of innovators, including entrepreneurs, landscapers, academics, musicians and foodies. The goal of the contest is to come up with innovative ideas that promise to make their city a more vibrant place to live and work.