BRADENTON -- The myth that Big Boxes have more of a selection, better service and lower prices than Mom and Pop stores is largely baseless. What is true is; when someone knows your name, sells you shoes within walking distance to your house, went to the same school as you, had you build their back porch, meets you at Little League games or promised you something in front of their mother, you're in pretty good hands.
What built Bradenton's wonderful river and beach community was backbone, heart and courage. It was those with a sense of fellowship to share its docks and piers with others who felt a stewardship; a pride to preserve the signatures of those who's sweat willfully left their mark.
Go through Bradenton's midtown, that's where you'll see the merchants, generations in the making. Take a drive south of downtown on 14th or 9th, just past the classic McKechnie Field, Bradenton's in-town baseball park, where the houses still have the carved trim and wrap-around porches That's where you'll see the names on store fronts with letters half an inch thick because the same name has been repainted over and over for the last 40 years.
Stop by Bradenton Windows, on 29th Avenue near 12th, that's where you'll find that trim -- old jalousie doors and windows, every size hardware for every sized window or door. I'm not talking about used recycled assorted material. Most of it is new and has been in their warehouse buildings for decades. I'm talking about a wall of drawers that have every clip, handle, brace and screw, like the ones you'll find in all of those old houses down the street; or the hinges, latches and caps, like the ones repairmen keep looking for at Lowes, where they can't be found. All the stuff you can't find, and never would have, in a Big Box store. The real stuff, cheaper than a Big Box would be for some flimsy imitation that won't match up to the real McCoy. Plus, they carry nearly everything a hardware store would have -- and has since 1956. Ask for the owners Roger and Lynn Smith, or their son RJ, or any of the other people that work there. RJ won't tell you something is going to fit, if there's a chance it won't. After all, his mother is there.
A study by the Andersonville Development Corporation found that locally owned businesses generate 70 percent more local impact per square foot than chain stores.
Next, go four blocks to 2620 9th St. West and sample what is said to be the best BBQ in town. J & J BAR B QUE is like going back in time to that quaint cypress shack on the edge of town of any southern town with a smoky scent in the parking lot that lets you know just what's cooking. Inside is Johnny McKinney and family. He has been standing over open pits since 1979, putting that saucy smile on people's faces.
From their award winning lemonade, to what many say is the best banana pudding in the world, you're sure to love it all. But far and away most popular is their pork sandwiches. Johnny isn't the only celebrity here. He is married to Tonja Brown McKinney, also a Bradenton native and a world class track star. The people of Manatee County just celebrated, Tonja Brown McKinney Day (Sept. 2, 2011). Johnny and Tonja's son, Jonathan, is the one proudly standing in the picture.
Just south to the next light on the east side of the street at 9th St. West, and 30th Av., is ABC Rental Cars and Sales. You can pick from a variety of cars to rent, and you don't have to go to the airport to do it. If you like the car, you can buy it. Mark Walzer, ABC's owner, will have his assistant Jackie help you. And they do provide pick-up.
A study conducted by Civic Economics found that in the New Orleans metropolitan region that if residents and visitors were to shift 10 percent of their current economic spending from chains to locally owned businesses, it would generate an additional $235 million a year in local economic activity.
A few blocks west to 1128, 30th Ave. West, is Mr. Cheesecake And More. Inside is a delicious array of cheese and chocolate, raspberries, cherries and fudge. There are cream puffs, eclairs, cannoli, brownies and more. Sabrina and her husband Corey own the place and get help from their assistant Michelle. A lot of sculpting and molding of cakes and cooking and boxing up pastries go on throughout the day. Wedding Cakes are their specialty, but it looks and has the aroma that says everything is wonderful.
The Andersonville Development study found that spending $100 at one of the neighborhoods independent businesses creates $68 in additional economic activity, while spending $100 at a chain produces only $43 of local impact.
Then there's Ralph and Bonnie Winkel's CLIX Portrait Studios at 1524 Cortez Rd. West. Here their modern technology is second to none. They can produce work in a fraction of the time of what it used to be, or of what it still is at the mall shops. I couldn't start to go through all of the techniques and styles of what they can do, but you can find out there. And at the end of the parking lot, a few feet right on to 18th St. West, at 4212, is Kreations By Kathleen, a one woman alterations and clothing reconstruction shop. From what I could tell, her talents are unlimited. She also teaches sewing classes each summer to locals.
A study by the Institute of Local Self Reliance found 16 percent of the money spent at a SuperTarget stays in the local economy. In contrast, the local retailers return more than 32 percent of their revenue to their local economy.
My guide and I were done with the tour except for one more stop; Miller's Dutch Kitch'n Inc. at 3401,14th St. West. Three generations of breakfast lunch and dinner, six days a week. Also the Pie Kings of Bradenton, they'll bake 5,000 of them from Thanksgiving to Christmas and many thousands more through the rest of the year. There is a gift shop, quilts everywhere, and the place is full of Mom and Pop food, everything homemade and many retail products ready to go. There is a feeling of calm, relaxed and that everyone is family. Second generation siblings Nick, John and Meagan run the place. Together, there is over a dozen children, many of whom work there. The place has been in that location, filling eager bellies for decades.
A group study conducted by, University of California, Clark University and Cornell University found that the arrival of a Walmart store reduces a total county-wide retail payroll by an average of about $1.2 million.
There was a common thread that ran through all of these places, one of community and the spirit of unity. April Childers, the well informed tour guide and personal friend to those at every stop, spoke of all of the volunteer work these merchants do and the neighborhood initiatives, their support in schools and summer programs. She knew the names of all of their kids and of their hardships, as well as their victories.
Childers is on a mission. She is like a long-term responder to what has been slowly eroding around us -- our historic midtown. She works for Central Economic Development Center Inc. and has been the muscle in the 14th Street West Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). Ms. Childers has been working to recoup what has been covered up by the scars of growth, sometimes referred to as economic development. The areas we drive through to get to downtown, known as midtown, are often overlooked in the rush to make things bigger and better. Though in reality, those two are seldom synonymous.
CRAs are designed to deal with the part of town we realize is more important than it looks. CRAs are an independent taxing district set up by the county for the purpose of improving a specific geographic area. The monies used in financing CRA activities are locally generated. A CRA can have a great impact in attracting new private capital and new building projects. Childers helps to make this happen. Part coach, part cheerleader and a lot of getting to know the families, she and her team of merchants organize farmers markets, car shows and bake offs. They demonstrate the promise and shine that got hidden under the dust of urban sprawl. They make sure Manatee community leaders and the Manatee County Board of Commissioners know just how vital midtown is.
It seems they do. Commissioners' support for CRAs are obvious and merchants are starting to feel the success. It didn't come from some irretrievable tax break to some corporate giant with a promise to hire a few low-wage workers. It came from what was there all along. It came from the grass roots of pride, a commitment and a belief in self worth. It's from what the parents of these merchants taught them, showed them and what they are carrying to their kids. This may be what cures America's woes -- the same old, same old that built it. Investing in ourselves and the will to help those who are struggling to get there.
I'll see you in midtown. I'll be buying a pie, picking up some hardware and stopping by to see how good Johnny's banana pudding is. I hope you'll be there too.
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