IOWA CITY — Brandon Thomson was one of about a hundred people who showed up for a public forum with the Johnson County Supervisors Monday night. He wanted to make sure the supervisors knew how important the flood-damaged Sutliff Bridge was to him.
“I grew up out there,\ Thomson said. \I spent more time on it than in the classroom. It’s a way of life.”
Thomson’s story wasn’t unique, as one by one, people approached the board or individual supervisors and shared their stories and memories of the bridge.
The bridge was originally built in 1898 in the rural community south of Lisbon. It closed to vehicle traffic in 1981 due in part to deterioration. The Sutliff Bridge Authority (SBA), a local group of enthusiasts, was formed and leased the bridge from the county. The SBA has maintained the bridge as a pedestrian bridge and tourist attraction. In 1999 the bridge was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Record breaking flooding in June of 2008 destroyed timber approaches on either side of the bridge, and destroyed one of the three spans of the bridge. The remaining spans were heavily damaged.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initially worked with the SBA to finance repairing and restoring the bridge. However, it was discovered that FEMA couldn’t deal directly with the group. Johnson County took back full ownership of the bridge, ending the SBA’s official relationship this past summer. The county authorized a series of inspections, an engineering report, and feasibility study to determine the extent of damage and the potential for repairs.
Six options were presented, with the board narrowing the choices to three:
– Option 1: Replace in kind at a cost of $2,028,135
– Option 2: A “cable stay” replacement span for roughly $200,000 less than full replacement
– Option 3: Removal and alternate projects at a cost of $200,000, freeing up $1,212,858 for other projects throughout the county
A sub-committee– comprised of supervisors Terrence Neuzil and the late Larry Meyers, Conservation Director Harry Graves, County Roads Director Greg Parker, Planning and Zoning Director Rick Dvorak, and Executive Assistant to the Board Andy Johnson– has explored the options, and received much in the way of public input.
But committee members wanted more before making the final decision.
Supervisor Rod Sullivan said the bulk of the phone calls and email messages he has received were largely in favor of repairing the bridge at first, but now have shifted to scrapping the bridge and using the FEMA dollars on other projects. In a previous meeting, Board of Supervisors Chairman Neuzil had said he was getting the same sort of feedback.
“We’re not making any decision here tonight,” Chairman Neuzil told the standing-room-only crowd. He hopes the board will have a final decision by Thanksgiving, but the date is not set in stone. Like Sullivan, Neuzil said he has received “lots of phone calls, lots of email.” When it comes to hearing from the public on this matter, he added “the more input, the better.”
At least two men present suspected some board members had already made up their minds.
Terry Brosh of Solon was among the first to come forward in the 1980s when the SBA was formed.
“They looked at us like we were crazy,” Brosh said about the board’s reaction 25 years ago when the first proposal was made to purchase the bridge. Since then, Brosh continued, the SBA “should be applauded for what they’ve done,” pointing out the “…blood, sweat, tears, and hard work” the group has put forth on the bridge and for “tucking that bridge under their arm, taking care of it.” Brosh feels the SBA would have “no problem” with raising the roughly $300,000 (the county’s cost for repairing the bridge under the first option over five years. Brosh also said he wasn’t sure public opinion would sway any supervisors leaning toward the third option: removal.
Brosh noted the SBA would likely be more than willing to continue with maintenance and upkeep on the bridge, if the county was not.
Randy Howell, current owner of Baxa’s Sutliff Store and Tavern, acknowledged the decision –making members have differing opinions.
“I know, right now, we’re probably split on the board,” Howell said.
As the owner of the only business in the small community, Howell reminded the board of the economic impact on his store and the county if the bridge is lost.
“We pay roughly $30,000 a year in sales tax. That money is coming to the state and trickles down to Johnson County. I’m a property owner, I pay property taxes,” Howell said. He added that people stop in daily asking about the bridge, and that the SBA had started a petition to save the bridge with over 500 signatures so far.
“We don’t want to waste taxpayers’ money, but we also don’t want to see a historical structure to be lost to a down cycle economy. Our economy is cyclic, it will come back. Once this bridge is gone it won’t be back.”
Jill Shaffer of Lisbon echoed Howell’s concerns.
“What happens if people stop going there?” she asked, citing the potential impact not just to the Sutliff Store, but to other area businesses and communities which feed off of traffic to and from the bridge.
“That bridge brings so much to the community and surrounding communities,” Shaffer said.
Nick Russo of Iowa City took exception to an editorial recently published in a local newspaper. The writer referred to the bridge as “an elaborate beer garden expenditure not justified by prudent financial exercise by the government.”
The author of the editorial, Russo said, “had not at least seen what I’d seen. There’s a whole body of integration and gathering centered around the bridge that has nothing to do with alcohol.” Russo elaborated on how the tavern and bridge are a focal point throughout the day for a variety of age groups.
“Very, very rich stories are exchanged,” Russo said. He summed up his argument to the board in favor of saving it by calling it a “bridge between generations.”
Russo’s friend, Jason Hervey, addressed the board from the unique perspective of a Hollywood producer looking for locations to film at. Hervey was one of the stars of the 1980s television series “The Wonder Years,” playing older brother Wayne.
“I look at that as a location,” Hervey said, encouraging the board to look at all aspects which would make the area attractive to producers. “It’s vital and important to the entertainment community. It’s not about one bridge, although it is about one bridge today. The sum is certainly greater than the parts.”
Hervey was asked by Russo the night before to come and speak, leading him to a 6 a.m. flight to Iowa for the sole purpose of getting in front of the board and asking them to vote to rebuild the bridge.
After the meeting, Hervey expanded on his comments.
“Sometimes the location and scenic backdrop is worth more than the money (incentives for filming) because you just can’t recreate or build some of these things. This (Sutliff Bridge) is part of what made America the country that it is. It’s full of beautiful things we have to preserve and we have to work hard to keep them there.”
Sutliff resident Lee Kraul made a more emotional appeal, marveling at the accomplishment of the bridge builders before the dawn of the automobile.
“It’s amazing how beautiful and how huge the thing is, if you think about how long ago this thing was built. Let’s prove that in 2009 we can do something that they did a hundred years ago without cars,” Kraul said.
Personal memories of the bridge were common, with John Feldman, formerly of Lisbon but now a Sutliff resident, remembering having his senior and class photos taken on the bridge and fishing from it.
“It’s a lifeline to my family,” Nancy Semotan said, while Troy Caspers recalled proposing to his wife on the bridge.
“I would love to have the opportunity to take my grandkids fishing down there,” Caspers added.
Tony Serbousek offered a historic perspective.
“It’s been a gathering point, a talking point, for a hundred years. People look at it as a part of history. I’d sure like to see it go on for another hundred years.”
Serbousek not only wants to see the bridge rebuilt, but also suggested making a park on the west side with a monument showcasing the history of not only the bridge, but the ferry which preceded it.
Chuck Coon, former owner of Baxa’s, summed up the supporters’ feelings.
“It took an ungodly act of Mother Nature to put it down. If we’re not going to fix it, does that mean that any historical site that gets damaged by Mother Nature, we’re not going to take care of, we’re just going to reject? We really should get her back to what she was so everybody can enjoy it.”
An online survey is available at http://www.johnson-county.com/dept_survey.aspx?id=7627  and will be up for roughly two weeks. Individual supervisors can be reached by phone at (319) 356-6000.