STANDISH – They say you really don’t appreciate something until it’s gone. And that’s the case in one part of Standish, where business owners and commuters are coming to terms with the loss of easy access to North Windham as a result of last week’s closure of Whites Bridge.

Deconstruction of Whites Bridge commenced Tuesday, Sept. 8, as work crews from Richmond-based Wyman & Simpson began the demolition of the existing bridge. According to project superintendent Jeff Simpson, construction of a new, wider concrete bridge with steel supports will be complete by June 1 of next year.

“The whole thing is past its prime. The deck is the real problem. The concrete has deteriorated due to years of salt, and freeze-thaw cycles. All that water just kills it,” Simpson said.

Debra Collet-Lougee, proprietor for the last 25 years of Sebago Lake Lodge & Cottages located in Standish overlooking the bridge, scrambled last week to deal with the loss of the bridge. By week’s end, she said she had lost 50 percent of normal business.

“You wouldn’t expect the weeks after Labor Day to be busy but it normally is. This is when we see our Europeans, parents of kids going to St. Joe’s. Pretty soon we’ll be seeing leaf peepers, as well,” Collet-Lougee said. “It’s certainly not a slow period for us. Never is.”

The longtime lodge owner said the lodge is in good financial standing and will “muddle through,” but Collet-Lougee wishes the state would have communicated better with affected businesses along Whites Bridge Road prior to the closure so they’d be better prepared.

“We used to be on the highway. Route 302 is right up the road. Very easy access. Now we’re off the beaten path, down a dead-end,” Collet-Lougee said.

While repeat-customers know of the lodge, Collet-Lougee laments the loss of “drive-by” traffic that she said makes up a significant part of the lodge’s business.

“Especially in the fall, people will drive the circle around the lake and spend the night here. With this bridge being closed, that’s not going to happen,” she said.

The lodge, which also takes in long-term boarders in addition to nightly and weekly guests, has already lost one year-round boarder due to the loss of access to Route 302. Collet-Lougee said the tenant had to move “since his ride to work comes down Route 302 and won’t drive the 8 extra miles to get him.”

Last Friday night – the first weekend night the bridge was closed – Collet-Lougee received a phone call from a guest who was stuck on the Windham side of the bridge and couldn’t figure out how to get to the lodge. Collet-Lougee redirected him back onto Route 302, told him to drive south until he reached the Route 35 intersection, then east along Route 35 for about three miles and then north on Whites Bridge Road past Saint Joseph’s College.

She knows the route well now that she has to drive it several times a day. What used to be a quick drive to get supplies in North Windham is now an expedition.

“So now, anytime we want to go North Windham, we have to drive about 8 miles just to get there. It used to be a mile,” Collet-Lougee said.

Similarly, Jeff Richardson, owner of Richardson’s Boat Yard next door to the lodge, is forced to direct customers on the same circuitous route. The boat yard also owns an annex in North Windham. Transporting boats and boating supplies to and from the annex is now a lengthy process, Richardson said.

“Everyone is glad it’s being reconstructed, but no one likes the inconvenience. Anytime you take out a bridge, there’s going to be impact. I just would have thought there would have been more information about this, or a little more communication,” Richardson said.

Jim Wentworth, project manager for the department of transportation, said the state held two public meetings prior to construction of the $1.5 million bridge project.

“You’re never going to catch everyone, and that’s unfortunate, but we did send out letters to immediate abutters with notice of the project. We also put out the message boards on the road,” Wentworth said.

SIGNS, SIGNS

Richardson has already changed signs on Route 302 directing customers to the boat yard. A new Richardson Boat Yard sign on Route 302 in front of Charlie Beiggs Restaurant in North Windham directs motorists onto Route 35. Another sign on Route 35 directs them onto Whites Bridge Road. Similarly, Collet-Lougee is in the process of attaching new arrows to the lodge’s various signs in North Windham to reflect the changes as well.

Rick Charette, a well-known musician who is also head of the Whites Bridge Owners Association, located on the Windham side of the bridge, said association members appreciate the reduced traffic but are concerned that an effective buffer is built between the bridge and the association’s beach once construction is complete next June. The bridge will be widened about 10 feet to make way for breakdown lanes, which don’t exist now.

“I’m hoping that when it’s finished, everyone will be satisfied and that our needs are met,” Charette said, “Basically, that when the bridge is done, there’s a buffer zone that maintains aesthetics and that trees are planted to replace the ones taken down.”

Wentworth said plans call for new plantings as a buffer to the association’s beach.

A LONGER COMMUTE

At Saint Joseph’s College, commuters who once approached the school via Whites Bridge Road from North Windham, are getting used to the added distance they drive, school officials said.

“In terms of the bridge, I think it certainly may be a bit inconvenient for some of our students and faculty, but I think it’s a project that needs to be done,” said Lynn Brown, dean of student affairs at the college.

Sadie Fenton, who drives daily to Saint Joseph’s College from Raymond, said the bridge closure adds 5 miles and about 10-20 minutes each way.

“Depending on the lights in North Windham, it takes about 10 to 20 minutes more to get to school,” the senior English major said.

In addition to the time and travel distance, Fenton is more concerned about the Route 35/Whites Bridge Road intersection, a traffic bottleneck she has gladly avoided by going over Whites Bridge to Route 302. She said the intersection is already dangerous and will become more so with the added traffic, especially come wintertime.

“Winter is going to be a heck of a thing,” Fenton said. “With snow and slush, trying to make that turn onto Route 35 is going to be a lot more dangerous.”

Project superintendent Jeff Simpson, left, and laborer Morgan Stearns from Wyman & Simpson work on Whites Bridge Tuesday morning. According to the project manager, the entire bridge will be replaced with a wider, steel-girded bridge with a concrete deck and steel railings. (Staff photo by John Balentine)

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