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Date of Issue: September 10, 2008

Island business owners to DOT: 'We won't survive'

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PB Americas project administrator Greg Wilson discusses the factors that influence when the Anna Maria Island Bridge can be closed to regular traffic for rehab work.
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Lois Gift of Whitney Bank calls for an earlier closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge for rehab work, saying the Sept. 29 date is too late to start for the Islandís tourist season. The meeting, organized by The Islander, took place at the Jolly Roger at Ooh La La! Bistro in Holmes Beach. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
/7-23-08/bridge-meet-mcclash-ln.jpg
Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash addresses a group gathered July 17 to discuss the bridge closure schedule.
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Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann calls for Florida Department of Transportation officials to listen to constituents' request for an earlier bridge closing.

More than 30 Island business owners gathered in Holmes Beach July 17 to plead with the Florida Department of Transportation to move its planned 45-day closure of the Anna Maria Island Bridge forward to include most of September.

Early September is when fewer tourists are on the Island and businesses will be less impacted by the absence of the Island’s “life line” - the Manatee Avenue bridge.

However, DOT officials were noticeably absent from the meeting, although spokesperson Audrey Clarke had said “someone” from the DOT “will be in attendance.”

Clarke, hired by the DOT for public relations, and Greg Wilson, the project administrator of the $9.2 million project, both work for PB Americas, and attended the meeting hosted by The Islander.

And they got an earful to take back to the DOT regional headquarters in Bartow.

They learned that Island business owners believe the economic fate of numerous Island businesses - already battered by high taxes and insurance costs and a sagging U.S. economy - hangs in the balance. In a down economy, the business owners are counting heavily on the return of visitors and winter residents beginning Oct. 1 and a solid week of business the Thanksgiving holiday.

That “return” is in jeopardy, they said.

The fear among the owners is that having the bridge closed during October will cost them business. If the project is delayed and the bridge doesn’t open for the Thanksgiving holiday period, business owners fear the worst.

Small business survival in doubt

“We can’t make it,” said Dave Russell, owner of Rotten Ralph’s restaurants in Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach.

“A lot of businesses just won’t survive” if the bridge is still closed into Thanksgiving, he said.

August and September are low revenue months already, he said, and with October and November, “that’s four months of losses. Who can survive that?” Russell said.

And many long-time Island business owners predict a delay in the project.

Dee Schaefer of the Beach Shop and the concessions at the county’s public beaches said she’s been a business owner on the Island for 21 years and has seen numerous public works projects. “And I’ve never seen a job yet that finished on time,” she said.

If the DOT were to move the closure date forward to just after Labor Day, with a planned opening date of around Oct. 15, business owners “could live with that,” said Jason Suzor of the Waterfront Restaurant in Anna Maria.

In fact, some owners said they were “blind-sided” when the DOT announced the closure dates.

Business owner Margaret Hoffman of Hurricane Hank’s Bar and Grill said that when the DOT announced it would close the bridge in September “we all thought that it would start around the beginning of September and be closed September until mid-October. This Sept. 29 date was a shock.”

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

Island tourism is at its lowest point of the year in January and September, said Schaefer, a point echoed by Ed Kirn of Island Vacation Properties.

Island businesses expect the last two weeks of August and all of September to be a “down time,” noted Kirn. In fact, some Island businesses close during September to prepare for the Oct. 15 start of the season.

For Matt and Dom Schole, who opened Matt and Dom’s Pastry Café in Anna Maria in October 2007, it’s a tough time for a small business trying to make it on seasonal visitors and mainlanders who come to Anna Maria via the Bridge.

“It’s scary for us. This is going to hurt us,” said Matt Schole, who pleaded with the DOT for “anything you can do to help us, please, do it.”

John Jaeger, owner of the Egret shops at several Island locations, said the earlier the DOT could close the bridge the better. It’s going to be a “real hardship” for the small businesses on the Island to survive if the bridge doesn’t re-open on time, said Jaeger.

The “hardship” may have already arrived.

Visitors won’t come

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman said that out-of-town callers to the chamber already are asking if the bridge is closed.

“They tell me they want to come to the Island for a vacation, but they don’t want to come when the bridge is closed,” Brockman said.

It’s worse that that, said Lois Gift of Whitney Bank in Holmes Beach. “Some of our customers have said they are not coming back until the bridge closure is done. They say they want their Manatee Avenue access.”

The owners asked - begged - Clarke to carry the input back to the DOT, or give them an e-mail address so they could contact the DOT in Bartow directly with pleas for a date change.

Clarke agreed to forward the requests, but noted there are going to be problems. “Time is of the essence,” she said.

If the DOT agrees to the request to move the bridge closure to the week after Labor Day, schedules will have to be changed, requiring contractor Quinn Construction Co. Inc. to contact all the sub-contractors involved and agree to the date changes, ensure all materials are available for the earlier date and get approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, among a host of other issues.

But at least make an effort, said Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, whose district includes the Island.

“If it’s viable, let’s do it,” she said.

“These people who are trying to make a living have said they want to see an early September closure. Maybe the DOT should listen.”

Clarke again agreed to take the message, but stressed that it’s up to the DOT to issue a formal response or schedule a meeting with the business owners.

“We are not the ones to make the decision,” noted Clarke, “but I will take it through the proper channels and relay what the hardship is. A meeting will be at their discretion.”

Some in attendance were not so kind to the Bartow DOT office.

“Shame on them for not attending. There’s no one from the Bartow office here. This is our life-line,” said Islander owner Bonner Joy, who organized the meeting and was assured by Clarke that the DOT would attend.

The meeting was organized as a last-ditch measure after many pleas from Joy to the DOT to move the dates forward to include nearly all of September.

Originally, the DOT had scheduled the rehabilitation project to start in January with an April closure. DOT officials said the information they received was that the Island’s tourist season had ended by April 1.

Many Island business owners, including Ed Chiles of the Sandbar and BeachHouse restaurants, openly questioned the validity of the DOT’s information at a public meeting in October 2007, and campaigned that April is still part of the winter tourist season.

After considerable input, the DOT agreed to give Islanders three options, none of which called for an early September closure date.

With two options including a 105-day period with one lane of vehicular traffic open - along with 15 days of total bridge closure - Islanders reluctantly voted to accept the DOT’s offer of a 45 day closure from September through October.

When the DOT announced that it had changed the bridge closure to a 45-day period starting Sept. 29, the news seemed acceptable to Island residents and business owners because it was better than other offered options.

Some business owners, however, still questioned the late September closure, but the DOT offered no alternative dates.

The DOT at that time said the late September date was chosen because of a concern that closing in early September was at the heart of the hurricane season.

County Commissioner Joe McClash, who attended the July 17 Islander meeting, noted that when the county commission learned of the late September closure date, it had urged the DOT to consider an earlier closing, a plea that fell on deaf ears.

“You have to deal with the weather no matter what time of year it is. I urge the DOT to do something as quickly as possible,” McClash said.

Von Hahmann said that if the DOT won’t schedule a meeting with the Island business owners or agree to pursue an earlier closing, “We should go to Bartow” and demand a meeting.

Clarke said that e-mailing the DOT in Bartow might be counterproductive and von Hahmann agreed, noting that Clarke taking the information in person to Bartow would be the “fastest way” for DOT officials to be apprised of Island concerns.

 “Time is of the essence,” reiterated Clarke, who pledged to have the input from the meeting at the Bartow office by Friday, July 18.

 

How to contact DOT

The director of operations for the Florida Department of Transportation’s Bartow office, District No. 1, is Ed Gonzalez. The main telephone number for Bartow is 1-863-519-2300, or toll free 1-800-292-3368.

The DOT’s Web site is www.dot.state.fl.us, where District One (Bartow) has a link under “contact us.”

In addition, the DOT’s public relations office e-mail address in Bartow is cindy.clemmons-adente@dot.state.fl.us, while e-mail for Gonzalez is ed.gonzalez@dot.state.fl.us.

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