By Mark Young | email@example.com
Could Ware's Creek be the next destination for kayak enthusiasts? With a new kayak and canoe launching point installed creek side, the winding, meandering five miles of waterway is ready to find out.
Construction of the city's newest waterfront park wrapped up in early April, and Bradenton will officially open the new John & Rebecca Neal Park at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The "passive" park across from Ballard Elementary School in the 900 block of 18th Street West is a little piece of Ware's Creek heaven, featuring not much more than the kayak launch and a community garden.
There is no shortage of kayaking opportunities in Manatee County, but Ware's Creek does offer something different for those avid kayakers looking for waterways less traveled, so to speak.
Shawn Duytschaver has more than 37 years of kayaking knowledge and experience and was discovering out-of-the-way kayaking locations before they were known to many Floridians. As owner and operator of the Surfer Bus on the Palma Sola Causeway, Duytschaver said Ware's Creek offers the kayak location hunter something unique, and more importantly, safe, for novice kayakers.
"There are more novices than those with a lot of experience," he said. "What makes my location for Robinson Preserve a home run is an ecosystem, but it's knee-deep water, so it's safety first. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'This is my first time, and I can't swim.'"
Ware's Creek is even shallower, so Duytschaver said that's a good thing for those less-than-avid kayakers who seek unique, but safe pieces of Old Florida scenery.
"There used to be a time where it would be impossible to kayak Ware's Creek without dodging shopping carts," he said. "Now that they've cleaned it up, the flow is a lot better and it's more ideal to kayak the creek than ever before."
While there are kayakers who like to find different locations, Duytschaver said, "It's not the core of the industry. People typically have a preference whether in style or location. Some like open water, some like streams and rivers. But Ware's Creek is an important example for Bradenton because this is exactly what's going on in Tampa right now as they find out that kayaking in urban areas can be awesome, too, if you correctly use the environment around you."
The community garden at the park features 47 boxes and a red barn style tool shed. The city recently approved a community garden contract that features a refundable $20 purchase to be refunded when the gardener gives up their box. That contract is available through the city's business tax clerk's office at 941-932-9425.
At last count, only nine of the boxes have been spoken for, not including a few that will be reserved for students at Ballard Park Elementary School.
More than likely, the creek's heaviest use will come from nearby residents. Most kayakers, like Eileen Murawski, prefer their own neck of the woods. Murawski was at Robinson Preserve on Monday and for her, it's all about location.
"I prefer it here because it's close to home," she said. "My husband and I don't go as much as we used to, but we still have our kayaks. We were never really boating people, so kayaking has been our way to get out on the water and I love seeing all the fish and birds. It's calming, quiet and tranquil."
Kayaking Ware's Creek will likely offer views of manatees, particularly at the confluence with the Manatee River and the occasional dolphin chasing bait fish up the creek. Whether it's enough to attract the eco-tour enthusiasts or the "something different" kayaking crowd, only time will tell. But that ultimately was never the goal for the city.
The goal has been neighborhood revitalization in Ballard Park. The undeveloped creekside land has essentially always been a park, which is why the lengthy process to transform it into an official park has been the proverbial thorn in the side of Councilman Patrick Roff, who spearheaded the effort.
The city acquired the property, as well as eight other lots in Ballard Park, from Neal Communities in 2012 for $284,661, far below the $1.3 million value at the time. In exchange, the Neal family wanted one of the lots to become a city park and be named after the family. Prior to that, the city had approached the Neal family to purchase the properties because they were owned by known slumlords and were havens for drugs and prostitution.
Neal Communities agreed but never went forward with the redevelopment so it sold the properties back to the city, which tore down the dilapidated homes in 2014. A year before that, the city was holding public meetings in the neighborhood to plan the park.
The lots where the homes were demolished are currently for sale and the city retains the right to ensure the design of the new homes matches the neighborhood's architectural characteristics.
Roff previously said the park, combined with the infill project, is "the silver bullet" of the neighborhood's revitalization goals.