Realize Bradenton realizes it takes a village to raise a city

The City of Bradenton is a riverfront community of 53,000 people in the urban core of Manatee County, Florida.

In 2007, Bradenton created a citizen-driven visioning plan called “Downtown by Design,” in which they laid the groundwork for physical downtown revitalization efforts.

The Knight Foundation funded a cultural master plan for the city in 2007, and over a year from 2008-2009, a 10-year master plan was developed for Bradenton to leverage arts, culture, and heritage to build economic development, cultural tourism, and civic engagement. In 2009, Realize Bradenton, Inc. was formed to implement this plan in partnership with the Bradenton DDA as well as other partners in the business, education, cultural, and civic sectors. Johnette Isham was hired on as Executive Director of Realize Bradenton, and the new nonprofit’s mission was to execute that 10-year master plan. Now, at the end of nine years, the plan is almost complete.

Public art in Downtown Bradenton. Photo courtesy of Realize Bradenton.

The idea was that it takes more than brick-and-mortar businesses to bring people together and build social capital: Connections between people and places weave a healthy community, so this master plan was all about building relationships and building community, with a focus on the city’s spaces and places for people to meet and have fun. The strategies to activate downtown with arts, culture, and heritage activities included public art, art and youth education, support for individual artists, capacity building for cultural nonprofits in the area.

“We’ve been around for nine years now and I would proudly and modestly say that many people credit us with creatively driving downtown’s renaissance, and not just by ourselves—we have been successful because of many volunteers, partners, civic organizations, and cultural nonprofits, as well as our support from the City of Bradenton,” Isham says.

Realize Bradenton works with several cultural partners, including the Manatee Performing Arts Center, the Village of the Arts (the largest art community in Florida), the Manatee Village Historical Park, the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, and ArtCenter Manatee.

“It’s quite an array of assets we promote,” she says. “We can easily be seen as a cultural nonprofit, though I would say we’re a place-based economic development group that uses arts, cultural heritage, and food to bring people together to build the quality of life and prosperity in Bradenton.”

ArtSlam: A Celebration of Youth & Creativity! Photo courtesy of Realize Bradenton.

Since its inception, Realize Bradenton has supported the commissioning and production of 65 original pieces of public art (there were only eight in 2010), coordinates a weekly farmer’s market each Saturday that includes live music and chef demos as well as the monthly “Mainly Art” art fair held in conjunction with the farmer’s market, and hosts annual events like the free Music in the Park concert series and the youth-focused ArtSlam, in which teams of students, teachers, and professional artists write a business plan and budget for a day-long pop-up creative project that engages the community.

“All of the events we do are related to cultural vitality,” says Isham. “Everything we do in terms of space activation is really based on this creative notion. I feel so fortunate to be in a place that values how these things contribute to the community and individual lives.”

All of their events bring in a combined number of 110,000 people per year, and through this they have been able to show that Realize Bradenton has a $4 million economic impact.

Blues in the Schools. Photo courtesy of Realize Bradenton.

Their biggest signature annual event is the Bradenton Blues Festival. Part of the original master plan included the creation of a festival on the river. When the internationally-known Blues Music Magazine moved into town in 2011, Isham went knocking on their door and said, “Let’s do a festival.” After a year of research and planning, the Bradenton Blues Festival kicked off in 2012 in conjunction with the opening of the city’s 1.5-mile Riverwalk and helps to fund Realize Bradenton’s free youth, art, and music programs including “Blues in the Schools.”

“Now it’s really an international destination festival,” says Isham. It now draws in people from 10 foreign countries, 35 states, and 225 zip codes in Florida. “We’re always doing the research to get better, but to pull people into the process of making events and the community better is also important, so we send electronic surveys to our attendees, volunteers, vendors, and sponsors each year. We see that as a mechanism to improve, but also to get new information.”

One question they’ve been asking on this survey for the last two years is, “Would you be willing to move your business here?” Isham says 21 survey respondents have said yes, and one person even told her that the blues festival was the tipping point for he and his wife to move to Bradenton.

Johnette Isham. Photo courtesy of Realize Bradenton.

For the most part, Isham says, everyone from Millennials to senior citizens wants the same things for their city: density, diversity, walkability, and a strong sense of localism. “Celebrating the local, authentic community appeals to everyone,” she states.

With the organization now looking at its 10-year mark, Isham says that they are thinking about strategies to keep the momentum of the organization going and continue to further their efforts in placemaking, place branding, and civic engagement.

“We’ve been talking about having a series of celebrations for our 10 years and the community that got engaged to make our city a great place to contribute, and to live, work, and play,” she says. “As part of that, we’d like to gather information either face-to-face or through surveys that will look at our past impact and get the community to help us think about our future and how to move forward.”

One strategy Realize Bradenton has already adopted towards this goal is their emerging leaders development program and engagement initiative. In 2018, Realize Bradenton worked with the City of Bradenton and coordinated the Creating Together Bradenton Project with support from the Knight Donor Advised Fund of the Manatee Community Foundation. The goal of this project was to work with the community to develop ideas regarding physical design, public art, and programmatic opportunities for the planned Bradenton Riverwalk expansion.

“Long Table,” a fine dining event in support of the Bradenton Farmers’ Market. Photo courtesy of Realize Bradenton.

As part of this project, Realize Bradenton supported Millennials and Gen Z college students as leaders of inter-generational teams who then conducted surveys, community conversations, and a “Park for a Day” event that engaged more than 1,400 residents.

“I’ve always enjoyed being supportive of the development of emerging talent and leaders,” says Isham. “Going forward a lot of aspects of Realize Bradenton will be focused on working with youth entrepreneurs and students, getting young people positively engaged in shaping their community.”

They already have partnerships with the Manatee County Government’s Manatee Millennial Movement and the Manatee Young Professionals of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce and work with these groups to create Millennial-focused events like Popups for a Purpose to accelerate community engagement among the Millennial population.

“We’re all about attracting and retaining talent and young people,” says Isham. “I think we turned out to be a little more than what was envisioned in the master plan!”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
Collaborate from the very beginning—identify partners (cross sector if relevant), opportunities, and parameters. Leave room for the unexpected with a spirit of experimentation. Upfront: define the results you intend to achieve, with clear expectations for individuals and partners. We use MOUs (memos of understanding) for this.

My passion for collaboration started in 1975 as a Rhode Island School of Design student when I read books by architect Lawrence Halprin – “Taking Part – a Workshop Approach to Collective Creativity” and “RSVP Cycles–Creative Processes in the Human Environment.”

Realize Bradenton’s hallmark is “we bring people together” with arts, culture, heritage, and food. Some new initiatives are cleverly named: Cook Together; Clay Together; and Healthy Together.

For the Realize Bradenton staff we operate out of “Team Agreements” that guide our behavior.

(2) How do you a start a project?
A new project possibility is assessed within the context of our master plan, which is driven by our organizational mission and values: Innovation, Authenticity, Collaboration, Community, Excellence, and FUN.

Once that “test” is passed, we figure what we will learn from the project and what are the results-first targets. We ask “do we have the capacity” (time, treasure, talent) to do the project to our high level of quality.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
We start with “why.”

For Realize Bradenton the “why” drives the “what” and the “how.”


Bringing people together to realize possibilities and transform public places helps shape a city where people want to live, work, play, and contribute. Working with our partners, investors, and volunteers, we build a vibrant, healthy, fun Bradenton by showcasing arts, culture, heritage, and food.

We believe that:

  • Downtown is everyone’s neighborhood.
  • The arts, culture, and heritage assets of our riverfront community distinguish us from other comparable cities, enhance quality of life, and stimulate economic activity.
  • A vibrant Bradenton requires informed and engaged citizens to help shape it.
  • Engaging youth (Gen Z and Millennials) in shaping public spaces develops young leaders as the next generation of positive community change agents.

(4) How do you define success?
Overall for the organization Realize Bradenton—are we in line with our “why?” Has the staff collective worked within our Team Agreements and have individual staff members developed professionally?

By a project or event—did we achieve our intended results and what did we learn that we can apply to continually get better for the community.

When we bring people together, is there a buzz between people, did new social connections get made? How will the engagement carry forward?

For myself, am I having fun and growing and learning? (Particularly important in light of my seven-day work investment.)

(5) How do you fund your work?
By demonstrating our on-going value, responsiveness, and results, we receive support from the City of Bradenton, 23 corporate donors, key local and national foundations, individual donors, and volunteers who contribute their time, talent, and treasure.

On a personal level, an important aspect of my funding is the support from my hubby of 33 years.