ADDISON — The new Champlain Bridge isn’t due to be unveiled for another eight months, but a group of citizens from both sides of the lake is already planning a two-day inaugural extravaganza they hope will serve the added purpose of getting tourists and shoppers reacquainted with the region.
The celebration is being organized by the Lake Champlain Bridge Community (LCBC), a group that will spend the coming months brainstorming ideas and raising funds for a fitting opening tribute for the $70 million span.
“We want the community to get involved, and we want their ideas,” said LCBC member and West Addison General Store co-owner Lorraine Franklin, adding, “We are shooting for the stars; we might land on the moon, but that’s OK.”
Flatiron Construction began building the new Champlain Bridge last year. Most of the below-water foundation of the span has been completed, and Flatiron is under contract to complete the project by Oct. 9. In the meantime, ferries are taking vehicles back and forth between Addison and Crown Point, N.Y.
Franklin and other LCBC members hope Flatiron can complete the new bridge early enough to allow a weekend celebration to be held in September. That timetable would prevent conflicts with the Columbus Day weekend and the Middlebury College “parents weekends” in October.
“(September) would be a perfect time to give a boost to the economy,” Franklin said of the post-summer and pre-foliage period of late September, when tourism in the Champlain Valley typically ebbs a little.
The LCBC wants to make sure to give visitors a good excuse to show up. To that end, the group will put together a program that they hope will include some extraordinary surprises, along with the parades, fireworks, speeches and exhibits one would expect to see for such a momentous occasion.
It’s a task the LCBC is taking on with no financial assistance from either the state of New York (which is coordinating the bridge project) or Vermont. That means the group will need to solicit contributions from individuals and businesses.
Franklin is optimistic that enough donations will come in to put together a bash befitting the new bridge.
“We have already had a remarkable response,” said Franklin, who noted other states have bankrolled similar bridge celebrations, in part, by raffling off special privileges — such as being the first car, truck or tractor to cross the new span.
Organizers have already been approached by groups wanting to participate, including some vintage car enthusiasts who would offer a historic procession of vehicles to evoke memories of the 1929 bridge that failed late in 2009.
The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum has signed on to help coordinate a boat parade beneath the new span. And the LCBC is also discussing the prospect of enlisting the Weatherwax replica sailing ferry to provide demonstrations of how people got from one side of the lake to the other long before a bridge was built.
And Franklin is hoping Ben & Jerry’s Homemade sweetens up the festivities by minting a new ice cream flavor to commemorate the bridge opening.
While LCBC members want there to some novel twists to the celebration weekend, they also want to pay homage to the original bridge bash of Aug. 26, 1929. That pageantry, preserved on grainy black-and-white film, featured among other things an elaborate parade and a symbolic meeting at the middle of the span between then-Vermont Gov. John Weeks and then-New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Organizers would like to see that ceremonial handclasp be replicated this fall by Govs. Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Andrew Cuomo of N.Y.
“The 1929 celebration is a template or inspiration of what we would like to accomplish for the (2011) celebration,” LCBC committee member Sue Hoxie said.
Officials want the celebration to leave a lasting impression on visitors and locals. The ferry system has helped commerce on both sides of the lake, but Franklin said shopping trends have yet to return to the way they were before the old Champlain Bridge was closed for safety reasons on Oct. 16, 2009. The Crown Point Discount Grocery closed a few weeks ago amid lower sales, and other areas businesses have struggled.
“(The ferries) have not brought back that consistent flow of traffic we used to have,” Franklin said.
The LCBC will soon have a Website and will hold regular public meetings to solicit feedback on the bridge celebration. In the meantime, people wanting to weigh in with suggestions can e-mail them to Franklin at [email protected], or to Hoxie at [email protected].
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]