MIDDLEBURY — To tourists, the Champlain Bridge has for the past 80 years served as a convenient conduit from Vermont to New York state across Lake Champlain.
But the span has also served as a key funnel for economic activity in Addison County, ushering in hundreds of New Yorkers daily who work at area businesses and who shop at local stores.
The Oct. 16 closing of the bridge hit home in a big way this week, as some businesses from Addison to Middlebury found themselves on the brink of shutting their doors, while others began slipping extra cash in their New York employees’ paychecks to soften the added expense of their suddenly longer commute.
Dana Franklin, owner of the West Addison General Store, said 60 percent to 70 percent of his business has come from New York customers. The bridge closing has all but snuffed out that trade. Six of his store workers were New Yorkers. But with business lagging, Franklin has had to lay off three of those workers (who were full-timers); the other three were part-timers who resigned in the wake of added transportation costs, Franklin said.
The nearby Bridge Restaurant has also been ravaged by the suddenly stemmed flow of trade across the bridge.
Small business owners in Addison, Bridport and other nearby communities have been urging state and federal officials to restore bridge traffic as quickly as possible to save their livelihoods.
“We are trying to do what we can to get (officials) to understand that this is a huge issue,” Franklin said. “It is affecting a lot of people. We don’t want a hand-out; we just want to get business back as usual.”
Meanwhile, industries in Middlebury and Vergennes who depend on New York workers are trying to maintain business as usual in wake of a transportation hurdle that has dramatically affected commutes. New Yorkers must now either take a massive detour (how many extra miles?) through Whitehall, N.Y., or take either the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry or the Charlotte-Essex ferry. All of those alternatives have added substantial time and expense to New Yorkers’ commute.
Porter Medical Center (PMC) and the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center employ a combined total of 77 New Yorkers. Those affected employees have begun receiving $12 per diem to defray some of their additional transportation expenses, according to Porter spokesman Ron Hallman. He added PMC will participate in ongoing discussions on a countywide solution to the new commuting challenge.
“We obviously think this is a big deal,” Hallman said. “We are taking this extremely seriously.”
Approximately 100 of the 800 total workers at Goodrich Corp.’s Vergennes facility hail from the New York side of Lake Champlain, according to Sol Mirelez, the company’s marketing communications manager.
“We are concerned about the impact this has on them,” Mirelez said in an e-mail response to questions from the Addison Independent.
“At this stage, we are listening to our employees, and we are engaging with state and local officials to learn how long this situation will last and about the resources that will be made available to assist those who are affected,” Mirelez added. “Once we obtain that information, we will be in a much better position to determine which actions to take.”
Like PMC, Middlebury College has decided to slightly sweeten the paychecks of its approximately 20 staff and faculty who hail from the Empire State. The college currently employs 922 staff and approximately 300 faculty, according to C. Drew Macan, Middlebury’s associate vice president for human resources and organizational development. The additional paycheck contribution, Macan said, will help cover ferry and/or fuel costs associated with the longer commute.
“We’re trying to be really flexible,” Macan said of the college’s attempts to work with the affected employees. She said some of the employees might be able to work from home. But other affected workers — including five New Yorkers who help staff the institution’s heating plant — are absolutely needed on-site, Macan noted.
New Yorkers are also heavily in the workforce mix among businesses in Middlebury’s industrial park off Exchange Street.
For example, Agri-Mark/Cabot’s employs around 30 New Yorkers at its Middlebury cheese plant, according to company officials.
J.P. Carrara & Sons employs seven New Yorkers at its headquarters off Route 116 in Middlebury. The ferry services make the timing tight for affected workers, as Carrara employees generally punch it at 7 a.m., P.J. Carrara noted.
“Some of them are carpooling,” he said.
But the bridge closing is also having quite an affect on the Carrara plant in Crown Point, N.Y. Large trucks can’t take the conventional ferries, so traffic between Carrara’s Middlebury and Crown Point facilities has been greatly hampered.
The commuting inconvenience is not only confined to New Yorkers. Approximately 10 Vermonters work at International Paper’s (IP) Ticonderoga mill.
“It’s a small number, but if you’re one of them, it’s an inconvenience,” said IP spokeswoman Donna Wadsworth.
But the bridge closing has also forced logging trucks to detour both ways through Whitehall. In the past, empty logging trucks have been able to use the Champlain Bridge to get to the IP mill, Wadsworth noted.
“It’s a time inconvenience for the truckers and additional trucking costs incurred by us,” Wadsworth said. “It’s going to have a significant impact here.”
The only businesses that are inadvertently prospering from the bridge closing are the ferries, who have been asked by New York and Vermont officials to expand their hours and their season.
Michael Matot, co-owner of the Fort Ticonderoga Ferry in Shoreham, said on Monday he has been keeping up with the surge in business since the Champlain Bridge shut down. Matot and his wife Alison acquired the ferry business this past March, and of course never imagined that they would end up being a primary mode of transportation across Lake Champlain.
The Fort Ti Ferry had been scheduled to close on Nov. 1, but is now committed to remaining open until at least Nov. 15, Michael Matot said. The ferry has a gross vehicle weight limit of 15 tons, and can handle around 70 people, according to Matot.
“We want to keep working people going back and forth so they can feed their families,” said Matot, who currently employs eight people, in addition to his family members.
He added customers have been “very understanding,” given the trying and sometimes crowded conditions at the crossing.
Rep. Will Stevens, I-Shoreham, is one of several county lawmakers who have been working with the Matots and other businesses and individuals affected by the bridge closing. Stevens lamented the fact that many of those most dramatically affected are those who can least afford the extra transportation expenses.
“We are talking about service jobs where some people are spending an hour’s worth of wages on a one-way (ferry) ticket,” Stevens said. “There are practical issues here.”