By Donald Wittkowski
The prospect that the Townsends Inlet Bridge will be closed until late summer – if not beyond – has Sea Isle City business leaders fearing they will miss out on the normally lucrative tourism season.
During the monthly board meeting Tuesday of the Sea Isle Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, they expressed frustration that the city has been cut off from neighboring Avalon and both towns will not have a flow of business between them because of the bridge’s lengthy shutdown.
“It’s going to hurt Sea Isle,” said Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant.
“It’s going to hurt Avalon, too. It’s going to hurt both towns,” added Sea Isle developer and business owner Christopher Glancey, the Chamber’s president.
When the bridge is open, Sea Isle’s businesses get a boost from Avalon’s tourists patronizing the local retail shops, bars and restaurants. Avalon’s businesses similarly benefit from Sea Isle’s tourists, the Chamber noted.
“It’s a two-way street. It really is,” Glancey said. “You need those bridges open for people coming in both directions.”
Closed for an $8.6 million repair project, the 80-year-old Townsends Inlet Bridge was originally supposed to reopen before Memorial Day weekend, but delays with the project will keep it closed until “late summer,” according to the latest estimate by Cape May County officials.
Brian Heritage, a Chamber board member and owner of Heritage Surf & Sport in Sea Isle, said he has gotten gloomy reports from construction workers who are part of the bridge project.
“It’s never going to open, is what they’re telling me,” Heritage said. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is what they’re telling me.”
County officials did not return messages Monday seeking comment about the bridge.
Townsends Inlet is one of five bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission that connect the shore towns from Ocean City to Cape May along the coast-hugging Ocean Drive.
County officials shocked Sea Isle and Avalon in March by revealing that the Townsends Inlet Bridge is not expected to reopen until late summer, far later than the May 22 completion date that was originally planned.
Angered by the county’s announcement, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio and Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi issued a joint statement in March demanding “nothing less than full disclosure” about the construction delays.
Both mayors said they recognize that the shutdown of the only direct link between Sea Isle and Avalon will cause economic harm to businesses on both sides of the bridge. They plan to ask the county about its contingency plan to manage the bridge closure through the summer.
With the bridge out of service, motorists must follow a lengthy detour on the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 for trips between Sea Isle and Avalon. They now have to endure about a 30-mile round-trip journey between both towns instead of taking a short hop over the bridge.
Built in 1939, the antiquated bridge has gone through a series of shutdowns in recent years for structural repairs, maintenance work and related road construction. Estimates to build an entirely new bridge range from $105 million to $175 million, but the county does not have the money.
The repair project underway now is designed to replace seven deteriorated spans on the Avalon side. The bridge closed in September when the work started.
The county has blamed the construction delays on an array of problems, including demolition work, underwater salvage operations and unspecified “subsurface geotechnical complications.”
Glancey said he and Monichetti plan to attend the next meeting of the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders to learn more information about the bridge project and to appeal for the county’s help. Desiderio sits on the freeholder board, in addition to serving as Sea Isle mayor.
“There is no end to the bridge,” Glancey said of the lack of a definite timetable for completing the project.
Monichetti was equally glum. He predicted the bridge work will stretch on through the winter.
“You won’t see that bridge done by Christmas,” he said.
In the meantime, businesses in both Sea Isle and Avalon will continue to suffer, he stressed.
“This is going to be dicey, at best,” Monichetti said.