Lakewood Ranch's Mike Fetchko is the driving force behind the Bradenton Area River Regatta.
It was 10 years ago when sports promoter Mike Fetchko, who now lives in Esplanade, was about to attend a meeting in Bradenton with city and county officials to talk about starting a Bradenton Area River Regatta.
Fetchko's ISM-USA marketing group promoted powerboat regattas around the U.S. in cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit.
Would a similar event be possible in Manatee County? Fetchko needed to have answers for what seemed to him like "25 public agencies."
"I felt like I was in a Senate hearing," he said.
Even so, Fetchko was prepared to ace any question. Then the first one caught him by surprise.
"How do you protect wildlife?"
Fetchko thought he would infuse a little humor into a somewhat tense atmosphere. He brought attention to the fact he had been putting together races in big city waterways.
"Nothing lives in those waters," he said tongue-in-cheek.
"Nobody laughed," he said.
After an awkward few moments, and his assurance everything would be done to protect the wildlife in the Manatee River, Fetchko aced the rest of the questions.
Starting in 2012, planning began for the first Bradenton Area River Regatta, which made its debut in 2014. Fetchko learned everything possible about protecting manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and anything else living in the river. They had to get all the permits in place and they needed to make sure they were on the same page with the different government agencies.
With the seventh Bradenton Area River Regatta scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 12, Fetchko and key public officials talked about the formation of what has become Manatee County's premier one-day event. The 2020 regatta attracted 110,000 people, as estimated by the city of Bradenton, and generated more than $8 million of economic impact. The 2021 event was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Fetchko was living in Pittsburgh when he was approached by Elliott Falcione, the executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, about bringing an event similar to his Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta to the Manatee River.
"We had created a sister city partnership with Bradenton and Pittsburgh 12 years ago," said Falcione, who spent six years earlier in his career as the assistant director of operations and administration for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I'm a native Pittsburgher. Did you know 40,000 Pittsburghers visit Manatee County each year?"
After the sister city arrangement was formed, Falcione and other county officials visited Pittsburgh to see if officials there were doing anything that could apply in Manatee County. Falcione's friends with the Pirates put him in touch with Fetchko.
A few months later, Fetchko was checking out the riverwalk area.
"It was beautiful," Fetchko said. "But it was not what we needed. We could put 25,000 to 30,000 in that space on the riverwalk, but I told them we couldn't do the event unless we closed the Green Bridge."
Fetchko didn't think that was possible, so he packed up and headed to Tampa International Airport for the trip back to Pittsburgh.
"I felt good I had done my work," he said.
Waiting at the airport, Fetchko received a call from then City of Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, who told him he had spoken to Gov. Rick Scott and that the bridge could be closed. Fetchko went back to Bradenton.
Gene Brown, who is the current mayor of Bradenton, was on the city council at the time.
"I liked Mike's energy, his positiveness," Brown said of Fetchko. "There was an excitement of bringing this downtown. And the bridge was the best part. If we had to contain everyone on the riverwalk, it would have been too much. The bridge was a process, but we had a great team. We knew that people would have been frustrated and they wouldn't come back."
Brown said the officials realized at the very beginning it was an important project for the entire county.
"If you come here, you will come back," Brown said.
In 2014, Brown and his grandson, Jacob Brown, walked around the waterfront all day checking out the first Bradenton Area River Regatta. Watching his grandson enjoy the event gave him feedback from the entertainment aspect, and then he heard from local restaurants.
"This one event, they said would pay two months of rent and would get them to summer," Brown said.
Brown said Bradenton is about to embark on a $50 million downtown capital improvement plan to "bring us to the next level." He expects the regatta to grow and noted, "it shows we can have more events."
Falcione said it was only successful because the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto and Manatee County all came together.
Since the beginning, Manatee County has supported the event with $200,000 a year. Falcione stressed 100% of the money comes from tourism tax proceeds.
"It was so important for us to have a signature event to infuse new dollars into the community," Falcione said. "We wanted to bring people to the urban core. It brought a spotlight to the river-fronts. It provided residents with a free family event."
It also persuades visitors to move to Manatee County. Fetchko moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2014 after discovering the area's beauty.
District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was in her first term as a county commissioner when the project was being planned.
"I thought it would fill up the restaurants and hotels, and it has proven to do that," Baugh said. "I haven't been personally involved with it, but I have seen the numbers. And in my opinion, the event only works with the bridge closed. You can look right down on the boats going 100 mph."
Falcione said he wanted to present an opportunity that made sense.
"You don't need multiple premier events," he said. "But the regatta is special."
Although Falcione and Fetchko both credit each other for being the driving force behind the regatta, Falcione called Fetchko "one of the most creative promoters I've met on the planet."
Fetchko is now working on the 2022 event with 25 part-time employees, including 20 who work with him on events in Pittsburgh. He said it's kind of a reunion for those workers to come to Manatee County each year. Fetchko, on the other hand, is here year round.
"I thought this would be a good thing," Fetchko said of the Bradenton Area River Regatta. "It was perfect because of the width of the river, the board ramp in Palmetto. Standing on the riverwalk, that canvas was there. There was some angst, but I knew it would be a great event."
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