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Bridge unites community working toward common goal

Ocean Springs — When is a bridge more than a bridge?
When it serves to unite a cross-section of a community working to achieve a common goal: maintain the unique ambience of a small, coastal town.

Such is the story of the Shearwater Bridge — a concrete conduit connecting “old” Ocean Springs to the well-traveled East Beach area.

The bridge had been deteriorating for years, and the weight limit kept being lowered as a result. Eventually, city aldermen voted to close the bridge-but without having an approved plan for a new one, without having identified funding and without notifying the Jackson County Board of Supervisors or the U.S. Coast Guard (the bridge crosses the city’s harbor, a navigable waterway.)

On top of that, the closure set off a chain reaction of events: school bus routes had to be altered, as well as the routes of emergency vehicles, and re-routing in general forced a lot more traffic through small, quiet neighborhood streets. The closure also created a rallying point for those dedicated to protecting the marshes, harbor, neighborhood, businesses and popular birding site that make up the Shearwater area that the bridge runs through.

The only “plan” for the bridge’s replacement was one that had been introduced in the 1980s. Using state funds, that plan would have created a high rise structure with a drastically altered footprint that would impact access to the harbor and affect the birding site, residential and commercial property in the area and more. It was so overwhelmingly unpopular with area residents — as well as with many others in the city — that a coalition of opponents not only fought the plan, but ultimately helped defeat the county supervisor who had proposed it.

Immediately, the bridge issue was creating a lot of troubled waters — with the county government, residents, businesses and local community leaders.

But what could have been a predictable quagmire of blame, retort and conflict instead resulted in the building of a bridge between city officials, county representatives and a local civic organization.

“There was no question that we had to start with the premise that the footprint needed to remain the same,” said Ocean Springs Alderman Matt McDonnell, in whose ward the bridge is located. “Since that was pretty much agreed to, it became an issue of funding.”

Since the existing footprint did not meet with the specifications of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the bridge project, as desired, would be ineligible for state funding. The Jackson County Board of Supervisors agreed to fund up to 50% of the anticipated costs, said McDonnell, but when the bids came in, the costs were higher than anticipated.

“We went back to the county and they again stepped to the plate and helped us generate the revenue,” McDonnell said.

However, the private citizenry and others were wanting to add an “aesthetic element” to the structure, which would add even more to its final cost. Lighting and rails were proposed to enhance the bridge, which supporters saw as an important local landmark.

“Ocean Springs isn’t ‘Anytown USA’ and we didn’t want ‘Any Bridge USA’,” said Henry Furr, a long-time resident and area architect.

But once again, the additional funds necessary to do the extra work became an issue.

“I met with my colleagues on the board of aldermen and they were somewhat reluctant about adding any additional funding, so I went back and met with the county and also went to one of our local civic organizations and explained to them what the city wanted to do and how much additional monies it would cost,” McDonnell said.

That civic organization is the Historic Ocean Springs Association, or HOSA, an established, very active group which eagerly embraced the project.

“We wrote letters, approached individuals who were members, business leaders, that sort of thing,” said Herb Moore, HOSA president. “We also had a cocktail party on the bridge to raise funds. The City gave us permission and it was a great setting — you could see the sunset, birds, the water, the island and the harbor.”

Ultimately, HOSA raised $12,000 for the lighting and custom railings. It didn’t cover the entire cost, but once the county saw that HOSA and the city were successfully working to come up with the extra money, supervisors once again decided they would ante up additional monies.

“That contribution showed the commitment of the citizens to wanting to keep that area very special, very picturesque,” said McDonnell.

Also, Furr, a HOSA member, volunteered to design the lighting and railing, which features cut-outs of a sea bird in flight, pro bono.

“The bridge has always been referred to as the Shearwater Bridge, so I felt it was highly appropriate to have a shearwater in the design,” he said. “I also wanted it to be viewed from both sides, so we torched it out of aircraft-grade aluminum. We got permission for the design of the shearwater from the Anderson Family, which uses a modified version on their Shearwater Pottery business sign.”

“With the lighting, we worked to keep it focused down on the bridge itself, so it wouldn’t glare out onto the birds at the egret roosting site,” he continued. “The lighting has a period feel that seems aesthetically appropriate to the town. They are turned down to face the bridge deck and illuminate the railing.”

The completed project has not only met, but exceeded expectations, say supporters.

“I am tickled every time I drive across there to know it looks as good as it does,” said Moore. “Originally, it had no lighting. It has great lighting now. It’s decorative, it’s attractive and I think we did even more than what we set out to do.”

McDonnell is pleased, as well.

“It took us two years to get it done! But in the end, the partnership that came out of it between the county, the city, the architect and HOSA proved that if a community really wants something done and done the right way, that it can happen,” he said. “It’s not something that happens every day, but I don’t find it to be something that can’t happen over and over and over within a community.”

McDonnell said that although the length of the project caused problems for several businesses, the re-routing of traffic negatively impacted smaller neighborhood streets and other obstacles made the process rather arduous, it was all worth it in the end.

“We didn’t get a high rise, we kept the footprint the same, we enhanced the old bridge by putting in a new one with aesthetics and we kept one of the prettiest places in Ocean Springs intact,” he said. “It’s probably the most important accomplishment I was able to achieve in this term of office.”

It also is an example of how government and the people it represents should work together, he said.

“It truly set the tone for future projects and how they should be,” he said.

On the day the bridge was dedicated — a warm, spring day earlier this year — a commemorative plaque was unveiled that, in McDonnell’s view, best summed up what the project was all about. It doesn’t name one person as being responsible, but dedicates the bridge to the taxpayers of Ocean Springs and Jackson County, to the mayor and board of alderman as a whole, to the county board of supervisors as a whole, and to HOSA.

“There are no individual names, period,” he said.

The bridge officially opened last October.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Mara Hartmann at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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