City Needs to Leverage Village to Lift Surrounding Areas

Dennis Maley

 

Last Friday, I attended the annual Festival of Skeletons in Bradenton’s Village of the Arts. My son and I have been going to it and other events in the village for many years, but we’ve never experienced anything like we saw that evening. The question is whether that night will be remembered as the start of something special or just a rare and beautiful anomaly.

What made the night such a success was the idea to feature Gregg Allman as the guest of honor, so to speak. The parade is essentially a Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) themed event that takes its inspiration from the Mexican holiday, which honors friends and family members who have died with shrines that are supposed to help support their spiritual journey.

Allman passed away on May 27, and was deeply mourned by local music fans. After all, the music legend, who like Bradenton native Dickie Betts was a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, had deep ties to the local area, having lived on Longboat Key for many years. In fact, he made many impromptu appearances on local stages, each time to the thrill of those lucky enough to be at places like the 5 O’Clock Club or the old Playground South when he did.

Though the band is often spoken of as a Georgia group (they were living in Macon when they hit it big), Gregg and his brother Duane spent much of their youth in Daytona, drummer Butch Trucks was from Jacksonville and founding bassist Berry Oakley had relocated from Chicago to Sarasota while still a teenager to join Betts’ pre-Allman Brothers band, The Jokers. While no one town may be able to lay claim to the Hall of Fame group, our area can surely make as good a case as any other. This is also evidenced by the number of local musicians who have connections to the Allman Brothers Band.

Friday’s show featured one of Gregg’s three musical sons, Michael, along with Oakley’s son, Berry Duane, Betts’ Great Southern singer/keyboardist Mike Kach and bassist Pedro Arevalo. Chicago blues guitarist Rj Howson and former Charlie Daniels Band drummer Pat McDonald, both of whom frequently collaborate with the others, rounded out the lineup. Kach, who very well might sing Gregg’s songs better than any other living musician, switched off with Michael, who looks and sounds eerily like his father and is a skilled vocalist in his own right. When they played Statesboro Blues, it was pretty enough to make a grown man weep.

Click here for more photos from the event.

The crowd easily numbered in the thousands. The entire block of of 11th Ave West where the stage had been set up outside of the Village Veranda Art Gallery was wall to wall with music lovers. There were beer and wine trailers at both ends and food trucks in between. Throughout the rest of the village, attendees roamed through galleries, ate in restaurants and marveled at the beauty of it all. I had no idea this place was here! could be heard time and again from guests who’d heard about the show but had never been to an Artwalk, VOTA’s monthly first Friday event. 

The free concert was the brainchild of Annie Russino. Russino owns the Village Veranda and was the founding Executive Director of the Artists Guild of Manatee, a non-profit set up to allow the community to more easily host such events. If any one person can be credited for the Village of the Arts existing in our community today, it’s probably her. Under Russino’s stewardship, the village grew from a loose concept to a vibrant community of artists. Events like the Artwalks, the now defunct Gecko Festival, and the Parade of Skeletons brought people to a place that it’s very difficult not to fall in love with once you’re there.

However, the city has never really seemed very interested in exploiting the massive, untapped potential of the village, which is stupefying considering the fact that it lies in such a key strategic location when it comes to the revitalization of the Bradenton’s old industrial corridor—a part of town that continues to rot from the inside out, while city hall showers resources on Riverwalk and other areas near Old Main Street that already have much more going for them in terms of attracting investment.

The only time the city really seems interested in anything south of 6th Ave is when it has to do with LECOM Park (formerly McKechnie Field), or when promising to fix the downtown food desert with a grocery store that always seems to be in the works during election time, only to fizzle after. Ironically, the village occupies about half of the terrain between the historic ballpark and downtown. The realization of its potential could easily serve to promote a renewal that would see some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods transformed in a way that serves to connect everything from the stadium to the river in one thriving, walkable shopping and entertainment district. 

Frustrated, Russino took a step back a few years ago. While she remains a guild member, she’s no longer executive director (the position is vacant). Enthusiasm for the village remains high among those who know of its charms. Not only have there been new gallery openings but also more stabs at the sort of supporting businesses that VOTA really needs in order to fulfill its potential. Local gastro guru Dave Shiplett's Bird Rock Taco Shack elevates the simple street food to high art. Next door, the sinfully-delicious Atomic Cat Craft Ice Cream that was recently opened by former Sweets' Bakehouse proprietor Tara Allison, is as good as any you will find on the planet. The nostalgia-laced fun of Jerk Dog Records (where I caught a good punk band and scored some vinyl during a set break) is every Gen X and Y member's dream. But the VOTA events simply aren’t what they used to be, and the big problem for those kind of businesses has always been how to sustain themselves on part-time business and full-time overhead.

That was sort of Russino’s point in organizing the concert.

"I wanted to show them what was possible," Russino told me afterward. 

She said they raised $14,000 in cash, donations, and services through the guild to put the event on, plus they sold the beer and wine. The city didn’t contribute any resources, and officials should be a little embarrassed about that, considering how many events they have supported at Old Main and Riverwalk—several of which have been utter busts and few of which could have compared with the excitement of last Friday’s modestly-resourced event.

When asked what she’d like to see change, Russino’s wish list was relatively modest as well: follow through on the long-promised brick sidewalks, a solution to the long-understood drainage problems that plague the neighborhood with flooding, a greater police presence (perhaps regular foot patrols from the very nearby sub-station?), the city using its powers to lean on banks who are sitting on vacant, decaying properties, and getting after "slumlords" who’ve scooped up dilapidated properties on the cheap and maintained them as low end rentals with troubled tenants. 

Elected officials are fond of saying that government shouldn’t pick winners and losers, but everyone knows that it happens each and every day. In their role of promoting commerce and driving growth, it often makes sense for government to make the sort of investments that ultimately benefit the community at large but would otherwise go unmade. But it's the potential ROI and not the proximity to politically-connected developers and investors that should drive those decisions. 

The Village of the Arts is a veritable case study in the sort of place a government should be investing. Unlike the others, it doesn’t already sit on some of the most valuable real estate in town. Making it a more well-known and frequently-patroned community will encourage investment and make people other than low-end rental speculators want to invest in the properties within walking distance of it, rehab distressed houses and draw investment from more restaurants and service businesses that chase upwardly mobile demographics. When this happens, property rates (and hence tax rolls) tend to rise, while crime tends to fall and new businesses begin to buzz—themselves adding to the public till, bringing the cycle full circle.

This will not happen if the village is left pretty much out on its own, while the other destinations are supported generously. A monthly Artwalk is not enough to transform the surrounding community. In short, last Friday needs to become every Friday. Nothing beyond vanity investments can survive an existence in which two days a month deliver the bulk of the foot traffic. Annual, big ticket events like the Blues Festival are a nice way to brand the town and bring people in for a few days who will hopefully return, but even it would be more successful if a regularly-vibrant village music scene was created.
 
The Village of the Arts could be the crown jewel of the city, a beacon to young creatives and the perfect way to diversify an area dominated by the cookie-cutter, suburban, master-planned communities such people tend to abhor. Bradenton officials owe it to taxpayers, as well as future generations, to better nurture and develop this untapped resource. 
 

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Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. He is also the author of several works of fiction. His new novella, Sacred Hearts, is currently available in the Amazon Kindle store (click here). His other books can be found here


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Reader Comments
RJ Howson
NOV 12, 2017  •  It was a real pleasure to organize the musicians, run sound and play music for this event. The Allman Brothers family of bands, Village Of The Arts, Annie, Kyle Morris and people of Bradenton are dear to my heart. Dickey Betts lived in Oneco for a time, Larry Rhino Reinhardt (Iron Butterfly & Captain beyond guitarist, vocalist, songwriter) Danny & Frankie Toler, Soul/Blues legend Jesse Yawn all called it home. The VOA should consider having a Music Museum like Larry Danner’s Cavern Rock n Roll Museum in Sarasota. Berry Oakley, Dickey Betts, & Rhino started a band called Second Coming here which had many elements that ABB would later build on (dual harmony lead guitar, moving jazzy bass lines with contrary motion & counter rhythms) ... most Arts (including music) is under appreciated in this country ... I truly believe Music is the universal language that brings all people together. Long Live the VOA !!! Thanks for the support Dennis, Annie, Kyle and all those involved !
Nancy Dean
NOV 12, 2017  •  When we lived in Bradenton, we enjoyed touring The Village of The Arts and always hoped that Bradenton would rehab the surrounding areas. Instead both the city and the county have encouraged developers to tear up valuable environmental lands while letting the city core rot. What a travesty!


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