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Organizers hopeful about saving bridge

Published: Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 11:01 a.m. CDT

DES MOINES (AP) — Organizers trying to save a 115-year-old bridge in Des Moines say they’re optimistic about its future, following more communication with city officials about whether the closed structure should be renovated instead of demolished.

Sarah Oltrogge, president of the Des Moines Historical Society, said efforts are underway to get formal support from the City Council and the Park and Recreation department. She said support is building to save the bridge, which will help with a private effort to raise money needed to repair and preserve the structure.

“We really feel like enough people have raised their voices in opposition to tearing down the bridge that we’ve been heard. So I’m glad to see that the tide is changing a bit on (the council’s) stance of wanting to tear it down and they’re more willing to work with us,” she said. “There’s still a big road ahead to fundraise, but we’ll worry about that when we get there.”

Oltrogge is among a small group of people trying to raise money for the bridge, which crosses the Raccoon River, just upstream from the waterway’s confluence with the Des Moines River.

The bridge has multiple names, including the Southwest Fifth Street bridge and the Jackson Avenue bridge. City officials closed it in March due to safety concerns about how much weight it could support.

The bridge, built in 1898, has unique architecture not found on many other bridges in the urban areas of Iowa. It initially served as a link between downtown Des Moines and a growing Italian immigrant population on the city’s south side.

Until it closed this year, it was part of the city’s trail system and was heavily used by cyclists and pedestrians.

Councilman Skip Moore said he wants to save the bridge, but limited funds in the city’s budget make it impossible for the City Council to fund need repairs.

“I would vote today to save the bridge and the city pay for it all if we had the budget,” he said. “But we’re going into a budget that’s going to have a $7 million deficit. So we evidently don’t have the money.”

It’s still unclear how much money is needed for repairs. Moore said a structural engineer hired by the city estimated the renovation would cost at least $3.5 million.

Oltrogge said her group — which includes historical society members, Park and Recreation board members and other citizens — are trying to raise money for a second assessment of the bridge. The goal is to improve understanding of the bridge’s structural problems and better specify repair costs.

But first up is the formal support from city officials. The Park and Recreation board will meet Monday to approve a recommendation to the City Council to support the bridge. The City Council will then meet the following Monday, and council members will express their views on the bridge’s future.

In the meantime, the Park and Recreation department is helping the private group with the new assessment by tracking down historical documents pertaining to the bridge, including previous inspections.

“We’re helping them hand-in-hand. It is a true partnership,” said Ben Page, Park and Recreation director. “We’re trying to see if we can help save this.”

About $750,000 from the city budget will be available in a few years to demolish the bridge. Both Moore and Oltrogge said they hope the money can instead be redirected to renovation efforts when the time is right. For now, the private group will focus on fundraising for the next three to four years.

Oltrogge, who recently wrote an opinion piece about the bridge in The Des Moines Register, said she felt unsure at the time whether city officials would come together in support of saving it. She has since changed her mind.

“We do have a long way to go, but it’s not insurmountable,” she said. “We’ve tackled things like this before and I think just raising the awareness of the need for something like this to happen, goes a long way.”

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