DOT's Cann can't do
The Florida Department of Transportation will not alter its schedule for the planned 45-day closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge.
Islander editor Bonner Joy held a conference call Sept. 3 with Florida Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Koupelousos and DOT District One secretary Stan Cann in Bartow to plead the case for Island businesses.
Joy told Cann and Koupelousos that the DOT should change its closure plan to allow at least a single lane of traffic while renovations continue on the bridge. The bridge is scheduled to close from Sept. 29 to Nov. 13.
She explained to the officials that the fear among Island business owners is that the complete closure of the bridge will keep winter arrivals and mainland day visitors from the Island until the bridge reopens. Worse, if the bridge does not open as planned on Nov. 13, many business owners fear they’ll lose expected Thanksgiving holiday business.
The business owners say the winter season begins in October and they count on the return of visitors that month to start cash registers ringing, be it homes that are sold or rented, sales of clothing and jewelry and hungry mouths seeking a quality Island dining experience, she said.
“I have business people coming to me every day asking ‘What are we going to do?’” Joy told the DOT officials. “They are telling me they can’t survive after a slow summer, a particularly bad August, and the typically slow September without the expected increase in business in October.”
The business owners that I encounter say they are “very worried” about their livelihood and how they will support their families, Joy said.
The DOT needs to consider the times. A year ago when this plan was in the making, the Island economy was better than some other areas. Now the economy has hit retail and restaurants hard. It’s been a slow summer for them, on top of a slow year for real estate, Joy said.
With no direct “lifeline” to the mainland from the north half of the Island, business owners fear visitors and winter residents will simply put a hold on plans to come to the Island until the bridge is open to traffic.
Joy noted that Shells restaurant in Holmes Beach just closed (see separate story) and an employee indicated one of the reasons given by management was that owners feared they could not recover from the loss of business during the 45-day bridge closure.
That fear is spreading, Joy told Cann.
“Business owners here are so worried, they don’t know whether to stay open or close. Either way they take the loss” during the 45 days the bridge is closed, she told Cann.
Joy made the case that the DOT should augment the closure plan to allow at least one lane of traffic to operate to and from the Island, and that construction should continue at night to ensure a speedy completion.
She noted that contractor Quinn Construction Co. of Palmetto has said that during the closure period it will have emergency power equipment available to lower the bascule (draw) within 10 minutes in the event of any emergency vehicles needing access.
If that’s the case, said Joy, Quinn should be able to work around a single lane of traffic.
Cann, however, was unimpressed by the arguments.
After the DOT first announced last October that the bridge would close for several months to vehicular traffic beginning April 1, 2008, a public outcry forced the DOT to present several options to Islanders and concerned citizens.
Those included a 105-day closure with one lane of traffic open, or a complete 45-day closure with no lanes available for traffic.
At that time, the DOT indicated the closure would be in September, and taking the lesser of two evils, respondents to the survey voted in favor of the 45-day option.
When the DOT announced the closure would start Sept. 29, not in early September, a number of business owners, including Ed Chiles, and elected officials, including Manatee County Commissioner, quickly changed their opinions and asked to have the work start sooner.
Cann, however, said it was too late to change the plan.
“We’ve listened to the public. We gave the public an option and they voted for the 45-day period,” he said.
“We based everything on what people wanted. We also went to businesses and they said October-November was the time to do [the closure].”
However, it was only Chiles who remarked on a preference for an October-November closure last year on learning the DOT would delay its April closure plan. Chiles has since indicated that the closure should have been in early September.
Joy countered Cann’s argument, stating that she has not talked to a single business owner who now favors the October-November closure, including Chiles.
“You should come here and go door-to-door” to get a grass-roots opinion of the closure,” she said.
Sorry, said Cann. “October to November is what we were told.”
“I can’t make a change at this point,” he said. The U.S. Coast Guard would need at least 90 days to effect any change to the closure date and the contractor has already lined up materials and sub-contractors for the Sept. 29 date.
But Joy argued that changing the closure to allow for one-lane of traffic won’t require Coast Guard approval. No closure means no Coast Guard permit.
Cann, however, stuck to his guns. More than 60 percent of the people who voted last fall indicated a preference for the 45-day option and, Cann said, he would “stick with a majority of the people.” He added that if the 105-day plan were implemented, bridge repairs would still be ongoing in December and January, when the Island is in the midst of its tourist season.
Cann also said that a majority of Island and Manatee County elected officials have indicated a preference for the 45-day closure.
He relented, saying he would seek the opinions of the Island’s three mayors.
But, said Joy, those are not business owners who are facing the loss of their livelihood. “None of the three Island mayors owns or operates a business — or works.”
“Go to the business owners, not the mayors,” she suggested, observing that had a DOT representative attended the July 17 meeting called by The Islander for Island business owners to discuss the 45-day plan, the DOT would have known how those same owners feel the 45-day plan will devaste their businesses.
The DOT was supposed to have sent a representative to that meeting, but no one was present that day to hear owner after owner express “dire concerns” for their economic future.
Maybe because Cann and other DOT staff members are “government,” they are immune from the economy, Joy said, but she and other small business owners on the Island are not.
“You need to hear from the stakeholders,” she admonished Cann. “All we hear from you is ‘we can’t do this’ for one reason or another,” she said. The DOT is being “inflexible” in its decision-making process and the Island economy has changed significantly since last year. The DOT needs to take that economic change into consideration, Joy said.
Cann finally agreed to listen to business owners if the owners would communicate to their respective mayors regarding their desires, and if Joy would provide him a list of names, telephone numbers and e-mails, but made no promises that any change of plan would occur.
While Joy provided Cann with the names of the more than 30 Island business owners who attended the July 17 meeting, she had little hope there would be any significant change in the DOT master plan.
“I don’t think the DOT is capable of adapting or even considering the economy in its plan so it doesn’t have this dire effect on the Island businesses.
But they should, she said. They should be looking at ways to lessen the impact to us in view of the past few months. “It’s not a bridge to nowhere. It’s our lifeline.”
We have to stick together, hope they listen, and “hope we get through this,” she said.
Business owners and Islanders who want to express their opinion should contact Joy at 941-778-7978, or e-mail the newspaper at email@example.com.
Cann can be reached at the DOT Bartow office, 800-292-3368, or by e-mail at Stan.Cann@dot.state.fl.us. Koupelousos can be reached by e-mail at Stephanie.firstname.lastname@example.org.