By Donald Wittkowski
Paula Lilly estimates she’s lost between 30 percent and 40 percent of her customer base at her Pink Gator boutique.
Hank Ruxton, owner of the Hank Sauce restaurant, says he’s suffered a hit to his business, too.
And Eric Montanari is wondering whether he should have waited a few more weeks to have the grand opening for his new Fishin’ Pier Grille restaurant.
It’s easy to understand why they are concerned. Business at their places has been, well, abridged.
Along with other businesses located in the Townsends Inlet section of Sea Isle City, they have been hurt by the closure of the Townsends Inlet Bridge.
When the bridge was shut down April 2 for three weeks of construction, it effectively cut them off from their customer base in neighboring Avalon.
“It definitely hurts us,” Lilly said of her trendy boutique on Landis Avenue between 86th and
87th streets. “We have a lot of local customers in Avalon, about 30 to 40 percent. It really cuts that off.”
Montanari celebrated the grand opening of his Fishin’ Pier Grille last week in the same building as the Pink Gator. He is still trying to gauge just how much the bridge’s closure has affected his business. But already, he is having second thoughts about launching a new restaurant while the bridge is still shut down.
“If I had known before about the bridge being closed, maybe I would not have opened for two more weeks,” Montanari said.
Montanari said he isn’t quite sure at this point whether the bridge’s closing has had a direct impact on his restaurant. But he does know that business has definitely been slow since he opened.
“I can’t give you an honest answer at this time. Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t,” he said in an interview Saturday. “But I think it hurts us, because customers in Avalon aren’t going to drive all the way around to get here.”
People in Avalon now have to make a long, circuitous trip up Route 9 or the Garden State Parkway to get to Sea Isle, instead of having a quick, direct hop over the Townsends Inlet Bridge.
Ruxton, whose Hank Sauce casual restaurant has been in business for seven years at 86th Street and Landis Avenue, echoed Montanari’s comments about customers not wanting to make a roundabout drive between Sea Isle and Avalon.
“The beach tourists who come here like to drive straight up the island. They’re not going to backtrack all the way around,” Ruxton said.
Ruxton noted he is fortunate to have such a strong, local following in Sea Isle to keep his restaurant going while the bridge remains closed.
Without the local customers to sustain him, he said he would have “seriously considered” holding off until Mother’s Day to open his restaurant for the spring season.
“This is going to affect every person here,” he said of the impact of the bridge being closed. “Hopefully, they will reopen it soon.”
The Cape May County Bridge Commission, which operates the Townsends Inlet Bridge, has closed it for approximately three weeks to install new steel railings along the sides of the span. The project is part of a $2.7 million maintenance overhaul to make the nearly 80-year-old bridge safer.
The bridge has been closed because it is simply too narrow to accommodate the construction work and motor vehicle traffic at the same time, the county explained in a press release.
When the bridge reopens to traffic in about three weeks, the maintenance project will still continue. All of the work is scheduled to be finished by this June.
The county’s press release said traffic will have to squeeze through one narrow lane when the bridge reopens. Temporary red lights installed on the bridge will control the flow of vehicles through one alternating lane of traffic.
“Due to the narrow width of the existing bridge, the one lane of traffic being maintained on the bridge will only be 10 feet in width, thus there is no room for error,” the press release warned. “The one-lane operation for traffic is expected to run until June 2018. Motorists are advised to drive with care when passing through the construction zone.”
Drivers have enjoyed some modest financial benefits from the project. The $1.50 toll has been lifted during the construction work. But instead of stopping at the toll plaza, motorists have to endure the inconvenience of having to wait for the traffic lights.
The current shutdown of the Townsends Inlet Bridge is just the latest in a string of closings in recent years for structural, maintenance or road-related work on the antiquated span. In 2017, it was closed from April to late June for emergency repairs after structural cracks and deterioration were discovered during an underwater inspection.
Discussions continue on long-range plans to replace the bridge, which was built in 1939 during former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Currently, there is no money available to pay the estimated $105 million to $175 million cost for a new bridge.
Sea Isle and county officials have estimated it would take between three and 10 years for the planning, permitting and construction of a new bridge, once the funding is found.