From my volunteer work with Realize Bradenton and from attending numerous seminars and planning sessions, I now know some of the components that help to make a downtown vibrant and attractive to residents and visitors. So, when I visit a new city, I enjoy going to their downtown and comparing it to the checklist I carry in my head. For example, on a recent trip to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, I walked down Washington Avenue, the main thoroughfare of historic downtown, and ran through my list.
Along Washington Ave., I noticed the beautiful landscaping and street light banners that are great for communication and visual emphasis. There was clear signage and maps for new visitors to the area. The downtown has a great mix of local businesses including bars, restaurants, retail, and offices. The sidewalks were very pedestrian friendly and made for a nice walk complete with plenty of shading. Both the creative public art and Ocean Springs’ restored historic buildings contributed to the unique character of the downtown. To seal the deal, the area had cultural institutions to enhance the quality of life for residents and contribute to the economy through tourism.
Though the downtown was quiet on an early Monday morning on a very hot, sultry July day, we enjoyed our visit to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, which celebrated Walter Anderson, a multi-talented local artist with a worldwide reputation in ceramics, paintings and sculpture. We ducked into several shops to escape the heat buying books and pralines, a candy made from pecans and sugar. I was impressed with the historic touches of the town that have been preserved, a Coca Cola mural, neon store signs and clocks, as well as benches and trash cans embossed with the name of Ocean Springs in metal.
As a glass artist, I was attracted to public art made from cast glass that reflected the light at all times of the day. All of the amenities were in place to make Ocean Springs a nice place to visit and to live. But, what impressed me most about Ocean Springs was its people. Everyone we met was friendly, courteous and eager to help. They took and interest in us beyond what we might spend and made us feel very welcome. It made me think that beyond the physical improvements a town provides to attract visitors to their downtown, that people are just as important, maybe the most important, component of a marketing strategy.
Bradenton is known as “The Friendly City.” While Ocean Springs, Mississippi might give us a run for the money in that category, I predict that it will be Bradenton’s people that will be the biggest draw to downtown Bradenton. But, also it’s most unpredictable. As Bradenton residents, we need to remember that our attitudes are as vital to downtown development as splash parks and amphitheaters. I enjoyed my visit to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, but, the city’s residents are what I will remember the most.
Cathy Slusser is an historian and Deputy Director of Public Information and Historical Resources for Manatee County.