Does bridge predicament offer opportunity?

Published 11:13 pm Saturday, June 9, 2018

Scarred by cancer and slowed by strokes, the fire in Butch Brown’s belly still burns for Natchez, particularly when he feels the city he loves has been slighted.

The three-time Natchez mayor and once head of the Mississippi Department of Transportation saw a wrong recently and began working to right it.

Recently, almost as an aside on an update about ongoing work on one of the iconic spans of the Mississippi River Bridge at Natchez, state transportation officials acknowledged that the aesthetic lights on the bridge would not return after the ongoing work is completed.

Many in the community and particularly those in the tourism industry were outraged.

“Fact is, they made a huge mistake,” Brown said. “They didn’t tell the public anything.”

The excuses from MDOT as to why the lights would not be returned infuriated Brown, who like many others viewed the excuses provided as mostly spin.

MDOT said the lights were damaged due to vibrations.

“It’s ridiculous,” Brown said. “Do all the bridges along the Mississippi River that have lights vibrate? They’re on? Do the red navigation lights on top vibrate?

“They all have lights on the bridge. It’s nonsense to say that we’re the only one that vibrates and causes problems.”

Brown said the real problem was that MDOT messed up.

“The contractor was given too much leniency,” he said. “They could either cover up the lights to do the painting or they could take them down.  They moved them now, and they’re making up stories about vibrations and such.”

Initially MDOT further suggested the funds to replace the lights — $200,000 on the low end of the range — needed to be used elsewhere for more pressing needs.

Again, Brown — who has never been accused of going down without a fight or a spirited discussion  — calls their bluff.

“There is so much wrong with this thing,” Brown said. “They said we’re going to save our money to do maintenance on our highway system.

“You can’t even do 2 miles of blacktop for $200,000, and they know that.”

Brown is not alone in his frustration and determination to get lights back on the bridge.

He said people have been approaching him since the news first came out about MDOT’s plans to not re-light the bridge.

“People on the streets, all just want to help.”

“I’ve been lucky, though. I’ve got Warren Reuther on my side,” Brown said of the New Orleans hotelier who with his wife owns the Natchez Grand Hotel, Monmouth Historic Inn and manages the Natchez Convention Center.

Reuther was among the first people in Natchez to suggest seeking a plan to light the bridge in the first place.

“I was on the committee that lighted the bridge in New Orleans,” Reuther said. “When I came to Natchez I said, ‘We need to light the bridge.’”

Reuther and Brown called a meeting last week between city and MDOT officials.

Although no firm commitments were made, Brown said he left the meeting feeling confident that the lights would return the bridge.

“All and all, I think the issue is basically resolved already,” he said. “I want them to finish painting the bridge and get out of the way and we can deal with the lights.”

Reuther said he believes MDOT still holds ultimate responsibility for relighting the bridge since the original $3 million price tag for the initial lighting project came from federal sources.

Still, Reuther, the businessman and promoter sees something bigger around the corner.

“Anytime something like this happens, there’s opportunities,” he said. “With new, LED lights, you could do different colors, changing with the seasons. Have a festival!”

With Brown and Reuther leading the charge and the rest of Natchez and Vidalia in support, the bridge will be relit.

And Reuther is correct, rather than looking at the problem as merely a problem, we should seek to find opportunity. The bridge needs to be lit, and as we do that, we can improve the community.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.