Rehabbed bridge 'pretty much a new life' for Illinois town near St. Louis

Sunday, November 18, 2007
Workers put the finishing touches Thursday on the reconstruction of the McKinley Bridge. Barricades that went up six years ago on the 97-year-old bridge spanning the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Madison County, Ill., are coming down. (Jeff Roberson ~ Associated Press)

GRANITE CITY, Ill. -- From his Ford showroom's floor, Gerald Koetting easily can see the shimmering Gateway Arch rising from St. Louis just across the Mississippi River. "That's how close we are," he said.

But Koetting and others around this town of 31,000 have felt a bit isolated from their big-city neighbor since barricades went up six years ago on the 97-year-old McKinley Bridge -- this Madison County area's link to St. Louis -- after it was declared unsafe and needing rehab.

For this city best known for its steel-making, the closure has been agonizing. Koetting suspects it likely cost him business by cutting traffic past his dealership on Illinois Highway 3. Civic leaders say developers weren't willing to commit to Granite City as long as the bridge was out.

All that, they say, finally may change. On Saturday, the camelback truss span was rededicated, days ahead of its reopening.

A little more than a mile long, the steel-and-concrete crossing links nearby Venice to north St. Louis. Its reopening means drivers around here will no longer have to make a 15-minute detour south to get to the often-snarled Poplar or Martin Luther King bridges tying St. Louis to its Illinois suburbs.

Granite City has spent recent years getting ready for this, deploying an ambitious array of spruce-ups to put its best face out there for the drivers of 14,000 vehicles expected to make the crossing each day.

"It's pretty much a new life for the town," said city council member Jim Smith, 62, a newly retired community college teacher of regulations for would-be truck drivers.

"It's going to be a boon for the city," added Walmer Schmidtke, a 72-year-old retired firefighter on the city council since January.

Getting the traffic artery back couldn't come at a better time according to Mayor Ed Hagnauer, who said "our downtown just kind of died" without the bridge by stripping the city of any momentum it had.

"There just wasn't anything going on here," he said. "And as much as we tried to market Route 3, the question we received from many, many, many of the developers was, 'When is the McKinley Bridge going to reopen?' Nobody wanted to look at it because I guess it was just a one-way in, one-way out."

But in recent years, city leaders went on the offensive, using the bridge's eventual reopening as a reason to make Granite City alluring to drivers looking for a tank of gas, bite to eat or somewhere to shop. Or maybe even a place to live.

The city repaved its streets and has nearly completed the first stage of a $2.5 million downtown streetscaping, widening the streets while installing flower boxes and old-style street lamps. Dozens of crumbling buildings -- once havens for vagrants and partiers -- were torn down.

"We're trying to get people thinking about us as more than a little old steel community," the mayor said. "We think we're a pretty good bang for the buck."

Plans are afoot to put in a four-screen theater downtown and turn the former YMCA into an auditorium, restaurant, reception hall and office space. Not far from Koetting Ford along Route 3, developers are eyeing a possible $74 million shopping center.

After inviting in about 45 developers last summer to hear what it was up to, the city got two willing to develop roughly half of its downtown, exploring everything from office space to lofts, said John Ferry, the city's economic development coordinator.

The bridge's comeback is getting much of the credit.

"Is it an end-all as far as seeing our business take off? No, it's not. But it certainly has to be a positive," Koetting said. "There are positive things happening here, and that's what we're looking forward to."

Two other Illinois towns also located along Highway 3 -- Venice and Madison -- are also hoping to benefit. Venice reportedly is courting a Chicago developer looking to build stores, and Madison has been snapping up land for future construction along its main thoroughfare.

Once reopened, the bridge that has undergone a makeover of nearly $50 million -- more than 12 times its original $4 million price tag -- no longer will charge tolls or have holes in the deck through which the river below could be seen. The bridge now will have paved paths for bicyclists and folks on foot, complete with new lighting.

On the Illinois side, there's a new park with a towering, $325,000 sculpture dubbed "Salute to Steel," its three interlocking circles representing Granite City, Venice and Madison.

Come Saturday, there's one car dealer who isn't about to miss the celebration of the face-lifted bridge.

"I'll be there with bells on," Koetting said. "I gotta tell you, I am really anxious and looking forward to the reopening of the bridge just to see how it affects us. There's no way it can be other than positive."

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