Even a pandemic couldn't stop Johnette Isham from continuing her mission of creating a vibrant community out of downtown Bradenton.
One of her most notable achievements as founding executive director of Realize Bradenton, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the city, was creating the Bradenton Blues Festival. But when COVID-19 rolled around, and social distancing dominated events, Isham didn’t let it stop the community from convening. Instead she found a way to move the festival to a park.
“Johnette always knew how to look at (an) opportunity and then work within the scope of what she had to do,” Bradenton Mayor Gene Brown says. “She led from behind the scenes. Stuff got done with nobody knowing how it got done, but it’s because Johnette was the leader.”
And when challenged with a problem, Isham wouldn’t back down.
“She would call me and say, ‘Mayor, here’s what I think. Now what do we have to do?’” he says. “She would figure the angle and work it until she got what she wanted. But I knew she was getting what she wanted for our community.”
A well-known champion for downtown Bradenton, Isham died July 26. A family spokesperson declined to provide Isham’s age.
Susie Bowie, CEO of Selby Foundation in Sarasota and a longtime advocate for Bradenton and Manatee County, also remembers the Bradenton Blues Festival fondly, noting it holds one of her favorite memories of Isham.
“As I was standing there, (I watched) Johnette work her magic talking to city commissioners, sponsors, people enjoying the concert, musicians (and) engaging with students,” remembers Bowie, who was also executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation for nearly seven years. “Just seeing her do what she loved to do with all of those different types of people in one setting together — that was really Johnette. I know how proud she was of that festival every year.”
Isham retired last October from Realize Bradenton, after 13 years with the organization. She was selected in 2009 following a national search for an individual to form a nonprofit focused on achieving goals set in the 2007 cultural master plan established by the Bradenton Cultural and Business Alliance.
Prior to that, Isham worked at the Ringling College of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design and Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. With her experience, Brown says Isham could have gone anywhere with her career.
“She could have been doing a lot of other things and probably making more money with her stature,” he says, “but she lived and died Bradenton.”
While at Realize Bradenton, Isham became known for her work in the development of Riverwalk Park, including the recent expansion of the eastern side of it, and growing the Bradenton Farmers’ Market into the Bradenton Public Market. Isham was also instrumental in creating the Start-Up Circle entrepreneurship program and increasing the amount of public art in Bradenton.
Brown spoke highly of Isham’s dedication to the Bradenton Public Market idea. “It turned into one of the largest markets in the area,” he says, noting now it has a waiting list of vendors.
Isham spoke with many about ideas she had to make Bradenton a vibrant community.
“We had the opportunity to talk about projects that would really illuminate downtown Bradenton and bring people together,” Bowie recalls. “All of those ideas originated from Johnette. She spent many hours talking to people who represented various backgrounds and generations in the area, asking them what they think would make Bradenton vibrant and bring people together.”
Those ideas and project paid off because while at the helm, Isham and the Realize Bradenton team received many accolades, including being named the American Planning Association Outstanding Public Interest Group, Manatee Chamber Nonprofit Organization of the Year and winning the Knight Cities Challenge Award. Isham and the team also secured over $3.4 million in grants to oversee the revitalization of downtown Bradenton.
Bowie remembers Isham as a vibrant leader who always had a new idea.
“The idea was always backed up by evidence, research and books that were covered in sticky notes where she highlighted national studies and exciting work that she wanted to bring to the city,” she says. “I can remember Johnette coming into my office with a paper that she had written highlighting a new idea that she had for the city of Bradenton.
Over the past year, especially since Isham retired, the conversations between Bowie and Isham turned more personal. Bowie cherishes their talks regarding backyard birds.
“We would talk about our different feeders and who was coming to the feeder,” she says. “Johnette was really important to me and our community as a professional. But outside of that, it also reminded me that it’s also important to remember the value that each person brings.”
As the Bradenton community moves forward with the path Isham set it on, Brown says she’ll never be forgotten.
“We lost a person who loved this community,” he says. “She’s going to be sorely missed, but her legacy will live on forever.”