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Date of Issue: September 03, 2008

Newspaper not giving up on bridge closure dates

Islander newspaper editor and publisher Bonner Joy has not ended efforts to get the Florida Department of Transportation to change its closure plans for the Anna Maria Island Bridge rehabilitation project, despite several previous rejections by the DOT.

Joy e-mailed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recently in an at-the-wire effort to get the DOT to change its decision on a 45-day complete closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge starting Sept. 29.

Following the e-mail, Florida Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Kopelousos contacted Joy to listen to her grievances, many of which were expressed by Island business owners at a July 17 meeting organized by the newspaper.

“Some of us are at serious risk,” Joy told Kopelousos, adding that many who attended the July 17 meeting “have grave concerns about being able to recover from the typically slow months of August and September” with the bridge closed in October and November.

If the repair work goes beyond the Nov. 13 completion date, the impact on Island businesses “will be devastating,” Joy said.

Joy noted that when Islanders and concerned citizens voted for a either a 45-day full closure or 105 days of one-lane closures, the vote was made “blind.” The DOT only said then that the 45-day closure timeframe would be in September.

Joy said the businesses on Anna Maria Island are “stakeholders and they should have been directly involved with the decision on the closure.”

 

Blind-sided

It was only after the vote among those who responded to a DOT survey was in favor of 45 days that the DOT said it had worked out an agreement with contractor Quinn Construction Co. of Palmetto to close the bridge from Sept. 29 to Nov. 13. The DOT said it chose the late date in September because of concerns for a possible hurricane in early September.

Island business owners had no input into that decision, Joy told Kopelousos.

Many owners at the July 17 meeting said that when the DOT said the 45-day closure would be “in September,” they assumed the DOT would look at closing the bridge in early September to minimize any impact to the start of the winter tourist season, generally considered to be in October.

One owner said she was shocked by the DOT’s choice of dates.

 Margaret Hoffman of Hurricane Hank’s Bar and Grill said she and other owners “all thought that [the closure] would start around the beginning of September and [the bridge] would be closed September until mid-October. This Sept. 29 date was a shock,” she said.

Forty-five days is “not so bad” if it’s all of September to mid-October, Hoffman added.

 

Tough economy

As if to emphasize the importance of the winter tourist season to the Anna Maria Island economy, an informal survey of Island accommodation and retail shop owners found a consensus that business was down considerably the second half of August and the outlook for September was grim.

“This was our worst August in 30 years,” said co-owner Jeff Gerry of the White Sands Resort in Holmes Beach. In fact, for the first time, the resort had a day with no guests.

 “And September is always our slowest month,” Gerry added.

Ginny Dutton of Ginny’s and Jane E’s at the Old IGA in Anna Maria said local customers continued to visit the store, but there was a noticeable drop in walk-in traffic the latter part of August.

“We had a good first week of August, but we’ve noticed it slowing down since then,” she said.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman said that a number of accommodation owners reported vacancies during the Labor Day weekend, traditionally a sellout on the Island.

Brockman’s concern is that if the Island is slow now, how will it fare when the bridge closes, particularly if the bridge doesn’t re-open on Nov. 13 as planned.

“I, too, am very concerned about the closure starting on the 29,” Brockman told Joy. “Thanks for going to the mat for us on this.”

 

Last proposal effort

Joy made a proposal to Kopelousos that the bridge be closed overnight, with one-lane daytime closures during off-peak traffic periods. The bridge should be “fully open” to motorists for any weekend holidays.

If the DOT does not agree to the proposal, Joy suggested the project should be delayed until August 2009.

Kopelousos said she would discuss the proposal with DOT District 1 Secretary Stan Cann.

Cann had not responded by press deadline for the Labor Day weekend.