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Families stranded from their livelihoods

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Posted on October 22, 2009 |
By John Flowers



couple_bridge.jpg
RYAN AND KAREN Henderson can see their hometown of Port Henry, N.Y., from their temporary residence in a camper at Sportsman Cottages campground in Addison. The couple and their son have made the move because of the Champlain Bridge closing. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON — Robert Smith, co-owner of the Chimney Point Dairy Farm in Addison, has 100 acres of corn and 45 acres of soybeans growing on land a tantalizing six miles away in New York state.

“It’s so close you can almost taste it,” Smith said on Monday.

So close, yet so far.

Smith tried to harvest that corn last Friday, the day authorities closed both lanes of the Champlain Bridge due to concerns about the 80-year-old span’s structural supports. Officials would not make an exception to allow Smith’s agricultural equipment to cross over Lake Champlain on the bridge.

“We were told, ‘The bridge isn’t safe,‘” Smith said. “It almost makes you want to sit down and cry to think you can’t get there from here.”

Smith figures his farm is out around $80,000 if he can’t harvest the crops in New York state. And with dairy farming as economically depressed as it is right now, Smith said the $80,000 hit could sound a death knell for Chimney Point Farm. The farm is already mortgaged to a point where there is not enough equity to take out another loan to pay for trucks to haul the harvested crops through the 100-mile detour through Whitehall, N.Y., according to Smith, who hopes there may be some kind of emergency agricultural aid to address his plight.

“If I don’t get them crops home, I might as well have an auction and quit,” said Smith, who with his family currently milks 140 cows.

“We’ve got to do something soon,” he added, noting the crops need to be harvested before the snow flies.

Smith is but one of thousands of people inconvenienced by the closure of the Champlain Bridge.

Karen and Ryan Henderson are among the legion of New York state residents who choose to commute to Addison County for work. They find the cost of living lower in Port Henry, but have found better employment opportunities across the lake in Vermont.

Ryan Henderson is a master electrician at Middlebury College, while Karen Henderson works as a bartender and waitress at Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury. Ryan works during the day and Karen works during the evening, a schedule that allows them to minimize childcare expenses for their young son.

“We are a young couple with a child and we are trying to make ends meet,” Karen said.
Their carefully knit work schedule hit a major snag on Friday, however, when New York transportation officials closed the Champlain Bridge.

“My husband heard it through people at work,” Karen said. “To us, this was like a natural disaster. We were cut off from the place we need to be every single day.”

All of a sudden, the Hendersons faced some tough decisions. How would Ryan deal with a commute that would all of a sudden balloon from less than an hour to more than two hours taking a ferry or traveling south of the lake through Whitehall? Was taking the ferry even an option for Karen, given her evening work hours? How much would they be risking their safety driving long hours late at night or early in the morning?

“Do you risk your job? Do you let your house go to the bank?” Karen said.

The Hendersons answered “no” to those questions and have taken a pretty dramatic, short-term step. They have decided to move into a family camper at the Sportsman Cottages Campground in Addison. They are lining the outside base of the camper with hay bales to keep out some of the cold and hope to rough it out until New York and Vermont officials come up with a short-term remedy for the bridge.

“This is our tentative plan,” Karen said. “We obviously can’t stay in the camper for more than a week or two. Unfortunately, this is our only option.”

Asked if the family could consider moving permanently to the Vermont side of the lake, Karen said, “We love Port Henry and we don’t want to leave our jobs; we can’t afford to in this economy. Our hope is that they will put in a floating (temporary) bridge.”

Crown Point resident Carol Sweeney has worked at Porter Hospital in Middlebury for 19 years. During that span, Sweeney’s daily commute to Middlebury has averaged 33 minutes each way. With the bridge closed and now taking the Fort Ti ferry, the commute has mushroomed to more than two hours each way, she said.

“This has to be fixed,” Sweeney said. “It’s frustrating; I have a lot of anxiety over it.”
Not to mention less sleep. Sweeney said she has been rising at 4:15 a.m. to get to the ferry by 5:45 a.m. The ferry, which links Ticonderoga, N.Y., and Shoreham, Vt., charges $8 each way or $14 round-trip for cars and small pickup trucks — a sum that can take its toll on a tight household income after a while, Sweeney noted. Porter Medical Center officials announced on Tuesday that the institution will, in the short-term, give its New York state employees (of which there are 77) $12 per day to soften the extra commuting expense (see related story at www.addisonindependent.com/200910businesses-hit-hard-bridge-closing.)

But some New Yorkers who commute to the low-paying jobs in Addison County may be ready to throw in the towel.

“People are ready to quit their jobs,” Sweeney said, alluding to two colleagues from Mineville, N.Y., who told her they are looking for other jobs.

Sweeney is hopeful authorities establish additional ferries or a temporary bridge to restore more tolerable commuting conditions.

“We are in dire need,” Sweeney said. “We need help.”

Roger Sandwick is a Middlebury College associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry who has been making the commute to Middlebury from his home in Westport, N.Y., since 2002. Sandwick used to work at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and his spouse continues to work in Plattsburgh — a major reason why they continue to reside in Westport.

Prior to the bridge closure, Sandwick had a daily commute of around 45 minutes each way. But Sandwick now has to take the Charlotte, Vt.-to-Essex, N.Y., ferry, which he said has added “at least an hour each way. It has made the commute rougher.”

That said, Sandwick said he has been able to cope with the added commute. He leaves his house in time to make the 5:30 a.m. ferry in order to safely arrive for his first classes in Middlebury at 8 a.m. Like Porter, Middlebury College has also added some extra money to the paychecks of affected employees.

But Sandwick realizes others are less able to handle the longer commute and its added expense.

“Some people who live paycheck to paycheck are going to be hurt by this,” said Sandwick.

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