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Business Observer Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012 7 years ago

River of Progress

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The reshaping of downtown Bradenton has been a long time coming, and 2012 could be a breakout year.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

When David Gustafson was appointed executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority in June, his primary goal was to put the long-awaited $6 million Riverwalk project on a track to success.

Gustafson, in a July 1 Business Review cover story on the DDA and his appointment, indicated the Riverwalk was the catalyst for the entire downtown revitalization effort. Six months into his new job, Gustafson now says the project has progressed at a satisfying rate. It's even on schedule and under budget, he adds.

The Riverwalk, which stretches 1.5 miles, was designed to become a centralized hub of arts and entertainment events. Plans include play areas, a botanical walk, a skate park and a launch area for kayaks. An element of public art, similar to the downtown Sarasota waterfront, is also part of the project.

Paid for by bond financing, the Riverwalk project has been debated on and off for 10 years. It has gone through several iterations. A groundbreaking ceremony was held Sept. 19.

The DDA has since added another $150,000 or so to the project's budget, some of which will be used for one of the grand-opening events, the Bradenton Blues Festival. “We couldn't be more excited about all the things happening in downtown Bradenton,” says Gustafson. “All these things create buzz.”

So much buzz, in fact, that Gustafson says he hears from an organization nearly every day that wants to host an event or use space at the Riverwalk. Gustafson, 47, replaced Mike Kennedy as executive director of the DDA.

The DDA's mission is to use Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to revitalize downtown Bradenton and some surrounding neighborhoods. An eight-person board of directors appointed by the Bradenton mayor and confirmed by the Bradenton City Council oversees the authority.

While Gustafson says the Riverwalk is the catalyst to revitalize downtown, he also has spent time on several other key projects in his first six months on the job. Most notable is the redevelopment of the Manatee River Hotel on 10th Street West. The building, locally called the Pink Palace, for its exterior color, has been vacant since 2005.

The DDA and Bradenton city officials, however, reached an agreement Oct. 28 with a developer, Syracuse, N.Y.-based Widewaters Group, on an incentives package to aid the project. The city will provide Widewaters with $1 million in incentives and roughly $1.5 million in tax rebates. Widewaters plans to turn the 86-year-old building into a 115-room Hampton Inn & Suites. It's a $17 million project.

The hotel and Riverwalk have generated most of the headlines, and buzz, but Gustafson points out several other projects under way are also significant. For example, at least three restaurants recently announced plans to move to the area, or renovate existing downtown locations.

The activity is exciting, and it's mostly why Gustafson took the job in the first place. But the activity also presents Gustafson's greatest challenge, in that he wants each project to show the city in the best light. He also doesn't want to miss any other opportunities.

“Everything is moving at such a high rate of speed,” says Gustafson, “we have to remember we need to be a well-oiled machine when it comes to these events.”

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