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A Common Vision

Palmetto and Bradenton sit astride the Manatee River about six miles inland from where it flows into the Gulf just south of Tampa Bay.

Palmetto, with just 13,000 residents, more than a quarter of them farmworkers, is on the north bank. Bradenton, a mostly blue-collar town of about 50,000, is on the southern bank.

Despite an ample supply of affordable undeveloped waterfront property, neither downtown was able to capitalize on its location near the water. Developers considered Palmetto too rural and poor. Bradenton officials created a waterfront area near downtown called the Sandpile in 1968 to spur development, but the property became mired in litigation and remained undeveloped.

Meanwhile, residential and commercial developments blossomed along the downtown waterfronts of nearby St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

Some community leaders believed that Palmetto and Bradenton should combine their marketing campaigns. But attempts stumbled over politics until former Bradenton Herald Editor Wayne Poston was elected mayor in 1999.

Poston met with Manatee Chamber of Commerce members and Palmetto city leaders, and a partnership emerged. In 2000, the chamber sought proposals from developers to build a Manatee Riverwalk district.

Atlanta developer Bob Hatfield and Bradenton investor Jan Smith stepped up with a plan for Mainstreet, a 252-unit apartment complex on the Sandpile site.

Today, more than $1 billion in development is planned within five miles of the Riverwalk on both sides of the river.

In downtown Bradenton, the Promenade, also a Hatfield and Smith project, will include three eight-story buildings with a hotel, 350 residential units and office and retail space.

In Palmetto, several developers are creating Riviera Dunes, a 32-acre project that includes a 400-slip marina, 200 club and estate homes and waterfront condos.

Both cities are now pursuing investors to develop the more than 550 acres Palmetto has annexed in the past five months and the more than 600 acres Bradenton has annexed in the last two years. About 450 acres border the water.

The challenge now, says Palmetto Mayor Larry Bustle, "is to maintain a small-town atmosphere." To that end, both towns are adding colonial-style street lighting and brick pavers to dress up their historic main streets. And both are committed to the partnership.

"Never again will the river be perceived as a dividing line," says Bradenton Vice Mayor James T. Golden.