June 21, 2004

We're Going To Do What We Gotta Do

By Tom McLaughen, News & Record Staff

The rally to save Clarkton Bridge drew about 140 people on a picture-perfect Sunday- just the sort of setting that supporters of the century-old span hope to preserve for posterity.

With the bridge's spindly frame glinting under the bright June sunlight, people strolled across the span yesterday from Halifax to Charlotte County as a canoeist -- Halifax Town Manager Carl Espy - paddled by underneath. Billed as a rally, the event at Clarkton Bridge had more the feel of a picnic - com- plete with hot dog vendors nearby.

The informality was on display as SCC Chairman Jack Dunavant made a few comments perched several feet above the crowd on a bridge support. "We have just begun to fight. We are going to save to save this bridge," Dunavant said. Al Vaughan, an onlooker from the Red Bank community, asked Dunavant when VDOT planned to start tearing down the bridge.

Dunnavant answered in a day. Vaughan replied, "If they're going to start tomorrow, we got to go home and get the shooting irons."

The comment drew laughs from the crowd and seemed to fire up Dunavant, who vowed that "we're going to occupy this bridge, we're going to do whatever we've gotta do."

The bureaucratic battles that preceded the moment and are sure to follow it seemed as remote this afternoon as the bridge itself nestled in the countryside near the Mount Laurel community, Clarkton Bridge is a jewel of rural Southside Virginia in the eyes of its backers, a safety hazard and unwelcome expense to its beholders within VDOT.

"For a 103-year-old bridge, it looks pretty doggone good," said Dunavant as rubbed his hand over a patch of rust.

With holes rotted through the wood decking and little in the way of handrails to keep errant pedestriansfrom tumbling over the side into the Staunton River, the bridge needs a major overhaul, its backers concede, before their ambitions for converting the structure into a hiking, biking and riding trail can be realized. But for about the same cost of tearing down the bridge, it can be reborn as a tourist asset for the community, they believe.

P.K. Pettus of Charlotte County, a member of the Clarkton Bridge Alliance, hailed the vote last the Halifax County-South Boston IDA to call for a 45-day respite for the bridge. She said the IDA's intervention was important because it opens up a new argument in the battle to save the bridge.

"We need to make sure that Michael Schewel (the Secretary of Commerce in the Warner Administration) hears that we know the bridge is an economic asset to our region because of tourism," she said.

Pettus alluded to legal efforts to stop demolition work but said the key right now "is to make sure our elected representatives hear from us".

Dunavant made, a similar point. "We've got to the stop demolition of this bridge until we can get an organization going," he said. "We need to save this bridge. We need a little time."

Members of the Halifax and Charlotte County Boards of Supervisors have been discussing Clarkton Bridge's future with VDOT officials for months, and the Clarkton Bridge Alliance has made arrangements with the Virginia APVA, a non-profit preservation group, to take over interim ownership of the bridge from VDOT. But VDOT, citing immediate safety concerns and unresolved issues of permanent ownership and maintenance, announced June 2 that the bridge would have to come down.

The next step, said Dunavant, is to get with the Halifax and Charlotte boards and come up with a plan for taking over permanent ownership from the state. "We need to petition the board to set up a joint authority with Charlotte County to own the bridge and maintain it," Dunavant said. He urged those in attendance to make plans to attend the Halifax Board of Supervisors' meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the Mary Bethune Complex in Halifax.

Supervisor Dickie Abbott, who attended yesterday's rally along with fellow supervisor Lottie Nunn, said he didn't know whether the board would support a request for Halifax County to take over ownership of Clarkton Bridge, "I know I would," said Abbott as he stood under the cool shade on the Charlotte County side of the bridge. "But I don't know about the rest of it."