October 19, 2013 10:31:17 PM
William Browning - [email protected]
A crowd was on hand to witness the Old Tombigbee River Bridge officially begin its second act as a pedestrian walkway and special event location at the Columbus Riverwalk on Friday.
Roughly 250 people gathered in the middle of the bridge for a 10 a.m. ribbon cutting ceremony. The weather was near-perfect as local and state officials took turns at the podium.
Mayor Robert Smith was one of the first speakers. He called it a "great day" and thanked everyone who played a part in seeing the historic bridge -- built in 1927, closed in 1991 -- renovated and re-opened.
Columbus, Lowndes County and the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau each helped pay for the $2.2 million project, which began in August 2012. As part of the restoration process, the bridge saw its pier stabilized and its steel and concrete structure rehabilitated. Access lighting was put in place, a timber boardwalk and handrail were added, and a fresh coat of paint was applied. Neel-Schaffer Inc. handled the rehabilitation design and Malouf Construction was awarded the construction contract.
For years, the bridge connected downtown Columbus to "The Island" and all points west of town. With it re-opening, city leaders and planners view it as a spot that adds to the city's charm.
CVB Board Chairman DeWitt Hicks stepped to the podium Friday and listed the "wonderful" sides of Columbus that make the city special -- the Mississippi University For Women, Columbus Air Force Base, the fact that's its known as "The Friendly City" and the recreational value of the Tombigbee River. Then he turned to his left and mentioned that from the middle of the Old Tombigbee River Bridge he could see the city's soccer complex and Riverwalk.
"Let's keep climbing," he said.
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders told the crowd he figured he had passed over the bridge roughly 45,000 times in his lifetime.
"I know this bridge real good," he said.
Sanders then admitted that when talk about the renovation began, he was a skeptic. He felt it was an "eyesore" that should be torn down. But as he learned more about the idea, he said, his mind changed.
"Today, standing here, I think it's a wonderful thing," he said, adding that the bridge connects Columbus to its past.
Mike Tagert, the state's northern district Transportation Commissioner, said the new Old Tombigbee River Bridge is an example of what Columbus is about. He said the Mississippi Department of Transportation "likes working with communities that are trying to improve themselves."
Tagert said Columbus and Lowndes County, with their economic development, tourism efforts and quality of life standards, are examples of a community that doesn't settle. The bridge, he said, represents the difference between a community that is not only existing, but "growing and thriving."
After a ribbon was cut and attendees strolled along the bridge, some blues artists performed and local and regional artists offered artwork along the path.
One of the people attending the event was 63-year-old Johnny Ross. He lives in Artesia and said he used to travel the bridge every day of his life while coming and going to work.
"It was the only way to get in," Ross said while standing above the Tombigbee River. "If I had a dollar for every time I crossed this bridge, I'm telling you, I'd be a rich man."
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.