After tearing through public records about IMG Academy and other tourism initiatives, the lead tourism folks for the county decided to bring an exclusive to me about a major event planned for Bradenton.
It showed they trusted me and that I could do a thorough job. And sure, they wanted to have more control over the story…and they were asking my publisher for sponsorship money.
Still, it turned out to be a nice get. And the event itself was a success during its first year. A few minor hiccups with food, access and beer, but plenty of people turned out.
The one thing I regret not doing in my reporting was calling people in Pittsburgh about this event not associated with it. After I left the paper, I found out that the company that was bringing the festival to Bradenton, ISM-USA, lost the contract for the Pittsburgh event the following year as the city wanted to have someone new at the helm.
Not major but it would explain some of the motivation.
As the year progressed, I would cover minor updates from tourism council meetings and the urban affairs reporter would focus on the city issues from both Palmetto and Bradenton as this became more of a municipal story until the event itself.
Bradenton area could host powerboat race in 2015 on Manatee River
BRADENTON — Formula 2 powerboats could be racing down the Manatee River next January, bringing throngs of people to Riverwalk for one of the biggest free festivals downtown has experienced in recent history.
Pittsburgh-based Integrated Strategic Marketing USA has plans to bring a smaller version of the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta to the Manatee River on Jan. 30 and 31, 2015. The yet-to-be-named event is coupled with BMX stunt shows featuring national touring athletes, Zambelli Fireworks display, sand sculptures and a major concert. The Bradenton area would also be a circuit stop for Powerboat Superleague racing, leading up to the national championships in Pittsburgh.
“These powerboats are going to be something spectacular. You’re looking at essentially a missile on water,” said Michael Dongilli, vice president of ISM-USA. “These things will get up to speeds of 120, 125 miles per hour. They turn on a dime.”
Bradenton’s friendly relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates helped make this happen. The Pirates organization recommended the festival, and Mike Fetchko, president and managing director of ISM USA, and Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, are both former Pirates employees, helping to create a bond between the allies.
“The Pittsburgh Pirates are a big partner with a lot of things we do in the region,” Fetchko said. Initial talks in Pittsburgh began in summer 2011, weeks before Riverwalk broke ground in September that year. After giving the park room to breathe, talks resumed in earnest over the past year, Falcione said.
The event could easily span both shores of Manatee River, bringing in an esti
mated 75,000 people during the first year to Bradenton and Palmetto. The race festival could also produce an $8 million to $10 million economic impact in the Bradenton area for its first year, according to preliminary data, said Walter Klages, a tourism economist specialist who serves as a consultant for Manatee County.
Event organizers will request permits from the Bradenton City Council on Wednesday to kick off a series of meetings to get approval from the city, county and potentially Palmetto.
“The regatta has lots of components, but when you take its essence, it really celebrates the waters and the environment,” Fetchko said. If successful, the festival could turn into an annual event bringing thousands to the Bradenton area.
The grand feature will be the boats zipping down the Manatee River, turning corners at 4Gs. It’s easy to see how the event would translate here as parts of the river span a mile wide.
“We’ve got three rivers, but the Manatee River is much bigger than the Allegheny River,” Fetchko said.
The Bradenton area event is planned to be smaller than its Pittsburgh counterpart, which in its 37th year features more than 600,000 spectators during Fourth of July weekend, serving as the largest festival of the year for the western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and West Virginia’s upper panhandle region, Fetchko said.
“The way we structured it, it’s free family fun, and that’s what we’re going to do down here,” Fetchko said. “It’s going to have a lot of land components with BMX and extreme sports.”
The party in Pittsburgh celebrates its three rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio — with boat races, beach fun, fireworks and more in the shadows of the city’s sports stadiums, bridges, Point State Park and Mt. Washington as the largest inland regatta in the world.
“In many ways it’s a vacation destination for hundreds of thousands of people in the region because it’s free entertainment,” Fetchko said. “It’s water activity with Powerboat sanctioned races. It’s over Fourth of July weekend, so we have one of the largest choreographed fireworks display in the country.”
Logistics and details need to be worked out by 2015, and sponsors are still being sought to make the event happen.
“You’ve gotta really plan this correctly and do it right the first year out,” Fetchko said. “We won’t try to do three days, we won’t try to bring everything — the three-ring circus that the Pittsburgh regatta is.”
It’s unknown how much Palmetto will play into the festival, what bands would play the concert, how transportation and parking need to be coordinated and how the two bridges come into play connecting Palmetto to Bradenton for the mile oval course and fireworks. Officials are already searching for ways to ensure marine life is protected during the event.
Dave Gustafson, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, pointed to planning for the Blues Festival and DeSoto Seafood Festival as ways to help ease traffic and parking concerns, including having trolleys and cycle rickshaws, also called pedicabs.
“We’ll meet with MCAT again, we’ll meet with Siesta Trolley again, we’ll meet with Jolley Trolley again and do all the things we need to do,” he said. “Will there be some hiccups? There always is, but if everything works perfect, there’s nothing we need to work on for next year.”
The concert will be one of the more anticipated portions of the event, closing out the day of racing along with fireworks. Two smaller amphitheater concerts during the day-and-a-half festival will create activity before the headlining concert, which in Pittsburgh has featured Jefferson Starship, Three Dog Night, America and country star Craig Morgan.
With the decreased focus on alcohol and the folks close to the action, the race is in many ways unlike the offshore Suncoast Super Boat Grand Prix on Lido Beach, held Fourth of July weekend, where people camp out on the beach and imbibe.
“It’s not like offshore racing where the boats are cumbersome,” Dongilli said. “You can get up close and watch these things and see them fly down the river at 125 mph. Believe me, it’s nothing like you’ve seen before.”
The Pittsburgh festival is a dry event to encourage a family atmosphere, and discussions are being explored to find ways to bridge the gap between kid friendly and a place where adults near the event zone can have a brew while encouraging people to partake in Bradenton’s bars and restaurants.
“We’ve had great discussions with Dave and his team and Elliott and his team that we think this should be dry,” Fetchko said. “There’s enough places in Pittsburgh to go get a beer … just like there is here.”
Renaissance by Riverwalk
While the regatta will embrace both sides of the Manatee River, Riverwalk will be a focal point. Mayor Wayne Poston said the boat races are a perfect example of how Bradenton is working to take advantage of the river.
“We think it could be part of what we’ve been trying to program on the river to take advantage of the river,” Poston said.
Longterm plans see Riverwalk expanding to the east, which could open up greater possibilities for the festival, he said.
“The more things we do, the more we realize we want the Riverwalk to be bigger,” Poston said. “We realized that the day after it opened.”
If it wasn’t for Riverwalk and the business created from the linear park, this event wouldn’t have happened, according to officials.
“It’s really hard to say where this will grow,” Gustafson said. “You’ve got Riveria South Shores out there, you’ve got Scott Tibbetts’ property at Tarpon Pointe, you’ve got the boardwalk that connects all that. The future’s bright.”
The regatta helps fill a gap between the Bradenton Blues Festival, Manatee County Fair, Major League Soccer spring training and Pittsburgh Pirates spring training to keep the downtown core humming.
“When an area of a community is going through a renaissance, the best thing you can do is create activity year-round and create new activity year-round,” Falcione said.
The goal is to get first-time visitors to drive here from a 90-mile radius and convert them into regular tourists, and hopefully, eventually move here or start a business, Falcione said.
The event is also going to be marketed and promoted in greater Pittsburgh, including at the Three Rivers Regatta to get Pittsburghers down here early before spring training.
“When you say regatta, you’ll say Bradenton area, and that’s the goal,” he said.
A downtown party spanning from Bradenton to Palmetto is something that can “reinvigorate the urban core,” Falcione said. Having the powerboat races coupled with events like the Manatee County Fair the week before, along with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, helps create momentum for the city, Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said.
“I think what’s going on in the river and surrounding areas should be positive for the whole Palmetto area,” she said. “We’re hoping some way we can play into it.”
A briefing is being planned before the Palmetto City Commission concerning the event and to gauge the city’s interest in participating, Bryant said.
Palmetto’s Riverside Park could help compliment the event because three new boat ramps are in the works for the park and should be completed by the event, helping beautify the riverfront, Bryant said.
Bradenton would be happy to have Palmetto partner, Gustafson said, imagining places like Regatta Pointe Marina playing a role in the festival.
“From a Bradenton standpoint, it’s extremely important that we continue to partner with both sides of the river. Palmetto is extremely important to us. There’s opportunities for both cities,” Gustafson said.
“The river that divides us, connects us,” he said.
It’s possible that places beyond Palmetto could see some festival-related action, but officials don’t want to overload the area, especially Anna Maria Island. At the same time, the event will focus on the main events first before branching out too far beyond Bradenton and Palmetto.
“I think we’re going to be conservative and do the little things really, really well,” Falcione said. “The first year is vital to the future.”
Before details can be worked out, the event needs the OK from area governments, which includes permission to use marketing money from bed taxes to promote the event.
Along with Bradenton City Council’s considerations for permit approval on Wednesday, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority will also be asked to approve the event and funnel activity toward the regatta.
The Manatee County Tourist Development Council will be asked April 21 to recommend a sponsorship for the County Commission to approve.
“If we do this right, we’re going to celebrate the assets of Bradenton, the Manatee River, this beautiful Riverwalk, your arts community and other things we don’t even know yet,” Fetchko said.
Bradenton council gives initial OK to 2015 powerboat race
BRADENTON — Plans for a newly announced 2015 Bradenton area powerboat race and related festivities are moving along — just not as fast as the Formula 2 boats.
The Bradenton City Council granted unanimous conceptual approval at its Wednesday night meeting for the powerboat race, which is expected to be held Jan. 30-31, 2015, on the Manatee River.
The approval puts the rest of the event planning in motion to have organizers gain permitting approval from the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto as well as federal approvals to race in the water during peak manatee migration season.
“We love your city. We love your Riverwalk. We love the Manatee River,” said Mike Fetchko, president of Integrated Strategic Marketing USA, the festival organizer. “All the great success we had principally with the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, we think a lot of those programming assets are made for your Riverwalk and made for your Manatee River.”
Event organizers revealed more details Wednesday after a site visit to Riverwalk helped bridge together thoughts for the event. The Green, DeSoto and railroad bridges will act as focal points for what’s being billed as the largest free event downtown has seen in years.
The boats, which can reach speeds of 120 mph, will race in a north-south oval using Bradenton’s day dock as a hot pit and launch, Fetchko said, giving a grand view for folks in the deepest part of the linear Riverwalk and Anthony T. Rossi Waterfront Park and probably causing a some stares from drivers passing by on the bridges.
“We got a much better perspective on what we thought were the prime spectator vantage points,” said Michael Dongilli, vice president of ISM-USA. “The biggest picture started to come into play when we got to walk in not only the Riverwalk area, but the bridges, the piers — the things like that how things would connect.”
Festival organizers also want permission from Florida Department of Transportation to close the northbound lanes of the Green Bridge to use as a spectator area and allow people to walk between Palmetto and Bradenton during the event.
“We think it will be a spectacular area for the spectators to view the race,” said Fetchko, who is setting up a satellite office in the county to focus on the festival.
About 75,000 people are expected to attend the festival, highlighting the need to move people across the water.
“That’s going to demonstrate the need for more pedestrian access between the two cities,” said David Gustafson, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority.
A water taxi service would likely come into play, too, to bring people from Bradenton to Palmetto.
The amphitheater could stage BMX stunt shows, Fetchko added, in addition to drawing national extreme sport athletes to the skatepark.
Staging for the Zambelli fireworks show is coming into shape as well as other ideas for concerts throughout the downtown area.
Fetchko said he plans to bring jet ski races and water ski shows to the event, too.
It turns out the Manatee River will be even more attractive for racing than the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh.
“Yours is like glass,” Fetchko said. “I understand if a cold front comes through there will be a chop, but that chop is nothing compared to what the powerboat does up in Pittsburgh.”
The Manatee River is a mile wide while the Allegheny is a quarter-mile wide and a choppier course, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The race would also be the only Florida stop on the Powerboat Superleague circuit.
City officials are measuring how deep the river is on the race course, but depth should not be a problem as powerboats skim across the water and motors reach about a foot deep, Gustafson said.
One of the chief concerns so far is about manatee migration during January into warmer river waters. Councilman Patrick Roff encouraged organizers to work with Mote Marine Laboratory and marine biologists to figure out best practices.
“I think we can probably monitor them and make sure they’re not in the area,” Roff said. “It is going to be a concern. We are Manatee County.”
Councilman Gene Gallo said the manatees tend to migrate north to the Tampa Electric plant in Apollo Beach for the warmer water and thinks few are in the Manatee River at that time.
Gustafson said manatees will be protected as federal permits require. The offshore races have to gain permits through the Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
“Environmental issues are an extreme concern to us,” Gustafson said. “We are not going to ignore them.”
The city will be asked to approve event permits. Conceptual approval came with requirements for permit approval, insurance, a memorandum of understanding and directions on how the city will participate.
Palmetto will also be asked for permission at its March 3 meeting. The Manatee County Tourist Development Council will be asked April 21 to recommend a sponsorship package for the County Commission to approve.
Manatee River powerboat race tweaks schedule, asking for tourism dollars
MANATEE — A free powerboat race and festival planned for next year on the Manatee River is continuing to fine tune its plans.
The day-and-a-half event, with a working title of Bradenton Area RiverFest Regatta, is a scaled-down version of the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta that features F2 powerboats zipping down the riverfront at 120 mph, coupled with two concerts, a fireworks show and more.
“We’ve been in and out of Manatee County working on the event almost every week,” said Mike Fetchko, president of Integrated Strategic Marketing USA, the festival organizer, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Lakewood Ranch. “We feel really good of where we are and where we’re going, and we look forward to more successful meetings.”
The next meeting comes Monday when the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau will seek a recommendation from the Tourism Development Council to fund a $175,000 advertising sponsorship for the event, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the CVB. The money will advertise the Bradenton area as a destination and also create a landing page on BradentonGulfIslands.com for the race to promote the event, he said.
“That partnership with will drive prospective visitors to our website so they can get immersed in our destination and event,” Falcione said. Additional public relations and social media initiatives will be planned with the package, he said.
If approved, the County Commission will also have to OK the funds. The money will be paid by bed taxes, which are paid when guests stay at a hotel.
About 75,000 people are expected to attend the event in Palmetto and Bradenton next winter with concerts, ski and BMX shows and boat races.
Some tweaks expected
Organizers already had to move the festival date. The Gasparilla Pirate Festival announced recently that its 2015 buccaneer brigade will be held the weekend of Jan. 30 in Tampa, which is when the boat races were planned, Falcione said. Now, the race is pegged to happen Feb. 6-7, a Friday and Saturday.
“One reason why we are careful with some other big signature events in the region is I don’t want our advertising commingling with advertising of another signature event,” Falcione said. He wants all the attention in the region to be focused on the race festival.
Fetchko said the move also separates the family event from Gasparilla’s adult party.
Feeding into the family theme, a national headlining Christian music performer is planned for a Friday concert in Palmetto, Fetchko said, while the Saturday concert will “be more family soft rock oriented.”
The Pittsburgh regatta is a three-day event, creating a challenge for organizers who have to trim down the event to basically a day, Fetchko said. A jet ski race could be on the course and the dragon boats and skulls could also become a part of the festival, he said.
Fetchko is looking for two additional sponsors for the alcohol-free, family friendly free event. No beer sponsors will be allowed.
“We don’t need to be out there pushing beer,” Fetchko said. Instead, he’s focusing on bringing premium food service and encouraging those who want to imbibe to enjoy a brew at the downtown restaurants and bars instead.
Organizers are working to bring in a total of six to eight corporate sponsors for $225,000, Falcione said
And then there’s the name of the festival itself. Palmetto officials aren’t happy that the county’s convention center in their city says Bradenton Area, and Fetchko is well aware of that. That, and calling it a regatta here, has people thinking more about rowing and dragon boats than power boats, he said.
For the time being, the festival is being called the Bradenton Area RiverFest Regatta. Artwork and a logo are being created to help honor all Manatee County areas, including the Manatee River, to satisfy city pride and highlight all areas. More so, the marketing of a regatta means something different to Floridians than it does to Pittsburghers, thinking of sail boats instead of race boats.
“We’ve got to get it right,” Fetchko said.
Several people, in letters to the editor, have questioned the logistics as well as environmental impacts of the race, and Fetchko said he’s read all of the concerns and is working to assure that marine life will be protected.
Some of those requirements will be handled through the permitting process, which is still being taking place at the state and federal level, he said. Direction from those agencies will determine when the waterway will be closed to boater traffic and to cars on a portion of the Green Bridge, too.
“All those discussions have been very active,” Fetchko said. ” Let’s let them weigh in — the expertise from those folks who live here to safeguard the environment.”
As part of its efforts, a 5K race is being planned on the Riverwalk during the festival, with proceeds going to a local environmental organization. Proceeds from food and beverage sales will go to another local environmental organization, with the goal of raising $25,000, he said.
“We’re going to come in here and we’re going to be respectful of the community, respectful of the waters, the land and the residents,” Fetchko said. “We’ve looked at the letters, and we understand the letters.”
F2 circuit race organizers will be in town Thursday to chart the course for the races, he said, looking at areas for the dry dock at Regatta Point in Palmetto and the wet pit at the Bradenton day dock. The course is planned to be running north-south between the Green Bridge and the Tropicana train bridge, he said, and the F2 race organizers have already used satellite imagery to analyze the water and depth.
There was a misconception from some public officials that the boats would run out into the Gulf of Mexico, and that was never the plan, Falcione added.