By John Burton
RUMSON – Wait for it. Do you hear it? There is an almost literal sigh of relief and a sense of excitement from local merchants now that Monmouth County officials announced the Oceanic Bridge is opening to vehicular and pedestrian traffic Friday morning.
“I’m very excited. My partners are excited. I know my staff is very excited,” said Steve Bidgood, managing partner of Salt Creek Grille, a Bingham Avenue restaurant, located at the foot of the bridge.
“We’ve gotten something like 15 calls today asking if the bridge was open,” he said.
County officials have scheduled an official ribbon-cutting ceremony for 10 a.m. Friday, May 18, on the Rumson side on Bingham Avenue.
Bidgood’s restaurant, like other businesses on the Rumson peninsula and on the northern side of the Navesink River have felt the pinch at the cash register and have spent the last seven months the bridge was closed encouraging customers to take the necessary road detours to come and shop and dine.
“I’m very happy to hear it’s going to open,” said Mark Strassburg, who owns and operates the Memphis Pig Out, an Atlantic Highlands eatery. “I think it’s going to help us tremendously, especially as we get into the summer.”
The Oceanic Bridge, County Bridge S-31, is a 2,752-foot long drawbridge, the county’s longest, spanning the Navesink River and connecting Rumson to the Locust section of Middletown.
The more than 70-year-old structure had aged and deteriorated to the point where county engineers and officials had to close it and make the necessary repairs. Work included extensive rehabilitation on the bridge’s center bascule span, electric components, construction of a new grid deck, replacement of beams and supporting steelwork, and a complete makeover, removing rust, sanding and painting the exterior.
The project, budgeted at roughly $3.5 million, was funded by the state Department of Transportation’s Transportation Trust Fund, according to county officials.
The scope of the work required officials to shut the bridge down beginning last October. Memorial Day was the expected completion date, just in time for the all-important summer season.
But, as Monmouth County Freeholder Thomas Arnone had said previously, the project moved along at a comparatively brisk pace, in large part due to the exceedingly mild and dry winter.
“If every bridge [project] could go that smooth, my job would be a lot easier as freeholder,” Arnone said Tuesday.
But the seven months of being closed, which included the Christmas holiday season, was troubling to businesses and a nuisance to residents and motorists who were forced to take long detours.
Rumson Pharmacy, 22 West River Road, is one business that relies on local shoppers – some who live on the Middletown side.
Prescription customers remained pretty loyal during the construction, observed pharmacy technician Frank Koempel. But, he found, “the people who normally would come across the bridge, pick up Tylenol or a card won’t travel all the way around the bridge anymore.”
The pharmacy saw a decline of about 30 percent of its “front of the store” operation (nonprescription items), an ever increasingly important part of that type of business, he said. “You count on the front end to make money,” Koempel said.
Rumson Pharmacy also saw an increase in requests for deliveries, which it offers free to customers, during the construction period. “And that meant a lot more out-of-pocket cost, for gas,” Koempel said.
Memphis Pig Out also saw about a 30 percent drop in its business during the closure. “Some of that could be the economy, some of it could be the bridge,” Strassburg speculated.
“So we’re going to have to wait and see,” he said. “Give me a month after the bridge is open.”
But Bidgood doesn’t want to wait a month. “I just want to hear traffic. I just want them to come in and say, ‘Great to see you again,’ ” he said, predicting, “Friday’s happy hour will be one of the best.”