By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The Townsends Inlet Bridge is more than just a way to travel between the shore towns of Sea Isle City and Avalon. For both of them, it is an economic lifeline.
Simply put, when the bridge is closed, the towns suffer. When it is open, they get a boost.
That is particularly true for the restaurants, retail shops, marinas and other businesses located in the Townsends Inlet section of Sea Isle, according to the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization.
The reopening of the bridge Thursday evening after a 10-month shutdown for repairs promises to reinvigorate the local businesses by reconnecting them with their customers on the Avalon side.
“I think it’s going to be a big boost for all businesses on the island, particularly the ones in the southern end in Townsends Inlet,” said Christopher Glancey, president of the Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been a struggle on both sides of the bridge while it was closed,” Glancey added. “Once you lose that customer base, you are going to suffer.”
Now that traffic is flowing again between Sea Isle and Avalon, merchants are already reporting an upswing in business.
“Now that it’s open, I noticed that we had a nice, strong crowd coming in. We had a pretty big crowd over the weekend,” said James Tomassi, head chef and kitchen manager for the Beachwood at the Dunes, the newly opened shore-themed restaurant at 86th Street and Landis Avenue.
Tomassi explained that the bridge closing didn’t seem to faze Beachwood’s banquets, weddings, birthday parties and other special events. But the restaurant operations will be even stronger now that Beachwood will be able to tap its customers in Avalon again, he predicted.
“It really helped out. I noticed quite a few customers came from Avalon,” he said Sunday afternoon of the crowds this weekend. “I’ve seen the traffic volume increase.”
When the bridge was out of service, motorists were forced to take a lengthy detour on the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 to travel between Sea Isle and Avalon. With the bridge now open, they’re able to make short hops again across Townsends Inlet for their trips.
James McDevitt, manager of the Hank Sauce restaurant, a casual eatery at 86th Street and Landis Avenue, said the bridge closing not only discouraged customers in Avalon from traveling to Sea Isle but also people from towns farther south, such as Stone Harbor, Wildwood and Cape May.
“Now that the bridge has opened up, we’re seeing some familiar faces again,” McDevitt said. “It helps having the bridge open, just because we’re seeing people from the south coming in again.”
Business at Hank Sauce wasn’t badly harmed by the bridge closing because the restaurant is relatively small and has a strong customer base right in Sea Isle, McDevitt noted.
“But it definitely didn’t help,” he pointed out.
Pier 88, which rents boats and kayaks and also operates a bait and tackle shop on Sea Isle’s bayfront at 88th Street, is another business in Townsends Inlet that is already benefiting from the bridge’s reopening.
“We were struggling, but it seems much better with the bridge being open,” said Tommy Breazeale, a dock hand at Pier 88.
Breazeale said Pier 88 would typically rent three boats on weekends when the bridge was closed. However, there were five or six boat rentals this weekend, he said.
Dave Mattern, Pier 88 manager, said business at the bait and tackle shop also improved this weekend. He attributed the increase to the bridge reopening.
Beginning last September, the 80-year-old bridge was closed for a major reconstruction project that replaced seven deteriorated spans on the Avalon side. The repair project was originally scheduled to be completed by Memorial Day, but was pushed back to July after the contractor encountered a series of construction-related delays.
Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio and Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi repeatedly warned about the negative economic impact on both towns by having such a vital transportation link closed down during the height of the summer tourism season.
The bridge’s reopening at about 6:20 p.m. Thursday was marked by an impromptu celebration by people in both Sea Isle and Avalon, including cheers, applause and horn honking as cars drove across for the first time in 10 months.