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Creating Quality of Life in Bradenton

| Sande Caplin |

To realize is to: understand, take in, appreciate. For Bradenton, that’s just what Johnette Isham intended when she took her position as executive director of Realize Bradenton in 2009. This non-profit has changed the face of Bradenton in a little over five years, and Johnette is the driving, creative force.

She began her career as a graphic designer and to this day, several positions later, continues to use her artistic yet linear thinking to continue to create. Not pretty posters or impressive spread sheets (although she does that). But more importantly, quality of life for all of Bradenton’s residents, businesses and visitors.

 “Design is creating with a purpose, focused on human behavior and quality of life.”

This is one of many mottos and methodologies Johnette uses in bringing together all of the elements in which she is charged: Connecting People. Promoting Bradenton. Developing Places. Creating Economic Growth.

Prior to Realize Bradenton, Johnette, a designer-educator with over 30 years in arts, design, educational, non-profit, corporate, and governmental settings, led transformational efforts with local and national impact. Johnette’s creative place making started when she initiated the Providence City Spirit Program in Rhode Island in 1975. Her efforts were recognized in 2005 by London’s The Royal Society of the Arts’ international symposium Transforming Urban Communities.

Johnette came to Florida in 1988 as Vice President of Academic Affairs at Ringling College of Art & Design. Key highlights of her tenure were the expansion of digital technologies and creation of the Liberal Arts program—educating artists to earn a living and be engaged citizens.

In 2006, Johnette had partnered with The Wellness Community to create the international model of an optimal healing environment for cancer care – The Center for Building Hope.

 “I’ve tended to be attracted to start ups,” Johnette said. She then waved to people passing by the window of the board room before she refocused on sharing the business of Bradenton…which to her in part means helping folks have fun… and waving to strangers.

She was a newcomer to Bradenton when accepting her position at Realize Bradenton as a result of a national search. She’d resided in Sarasota and only came here on occasion to visit Village of the Arts.

She and her husband Jeff built a home in historic Point Pleasant in Bradenton because “We wanted to live, eat and think Bradenton,” she said.

“My first impression of Bradenton – it’s a friendly city. People of all disciplines work together. People open doors for you. But I saw opportunities that were unrealized.”

If anything, this confident, creative, witty executive director knows how to juggle myriad award-winning projects and events, but she does it one page at a time, because that’s how she thinks.

Riverwalk Bradenton Florida

“I’m a designer, so I think in one pagers,” she says as she pulls out multiple materials she and her staff of two has created in which to propel Bradenton to new heights.

Probably the most face-changing project during her tenure is the Riverwalk, a linear walking park along the Manatee River featuring dog walking, a skate board park, volleyball, playground, benches and public art to enjoy.

She solicited input from all walks of life for this project, and engaged USF architectural students. The result is that 80% of the project is citizen-driven – something to be proud of for all who reside in and visit Bradenton.

 “It (using young students) added a cool-ness,” Johnette says.

You might see her attending a performance at the new Manatee Performing Arts Center. Strolling through shops at The Village of The Arts.  Running around at a festival like the Blues Fest. The Bradenton Blues Festival is Johnette’s baby….she started it from the ground up. Mingling at a “Pop-Up for Purpose” event of her making (Pop-ups are events created at Bradenton’s unrealized spaces – the old shuffleboard court for example – for 18-34 year olds from all cross sections to mingle and collaborate). Normally, she admitted, seven days a week, she’ll be at the office creating means to an end: enhanced quality of life in Bradenton

“I work my butt off for Bradenton and am having a blast,” Johnette says. “Oh, three ‘b’s.”

Tonight she asked, “does my outfit look ok?” before I took her photo and she had to dash off to meet her husband for dinner and a concert on a Thursday night at Aces.

“They’re actually P.J.’s from Beall’s…feel ‘em. I’d tell you I’d rather go home and get in my  pajamas…but I already am in my pajamas,” she shrugs and smiles. And turns out the lights to the office with one more phrase of wisdom as she walks me out.

“People ask me how I juggle it all…it’s food, fun and flexibility…you get that?”

Works for me. So do all of her wonderful projects.

I have a renewed appreciation for the town I’ve called home for more than 35 years after talking to Johnette. An appreciation that a few of my Sarasota friends don’t always see. But I’ve always loved Bradenton’s schools, beaches, history, local shops, restaurants and Village of the Arts. It’s got a more mellow groove than sister Sarasota and I’m glad I raised my two beautiful kids here.

Thanks to Johnette and her team, and all of the wonderful people coming together to create quality of life, I see Bradenton as truly so much more than I realized, and I’m ready for what Johnette has up her sleeve next. Stay tuned to for more Bradenton realization.   
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Realize Bradenton
Photos by Patti Pearson / Sarasota Post

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