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Troubled waters: Mauthe Bridge set to reopen in Poland forest

Twenty-two months, nearly $100,000 and countless vitriolic emails later, the footbridge over Yellow Creek is almost ready for Poland residents to use come summer.

POLAND — A nearly two-year saga that included contentious meetings, a resignation from office, vandalism, a lawsuit and a "secret" rendezvous in the woods with the feds will soon come to an anticlimactic close. 

Mahoning Valley residents are no strangers to political intrigue, but this story isn't about a wayward politician. It's about the Mauthe Bridge, an iconic 61-year-old fixture in the Poland Municipal Forest.  

Twenty-two months, nearly $100,000 and countless vitriolic emails later, the footbridge over Yellow Creek is expected to reopen, just in time for home-bound Poland residents to use come summer.

Here's a refresher course on what exactly went down.

The bridge, which was built in 1959, was closed in July 2018 after a review by MS Consultants of Youngstown deemed it structurally unsound. The bridge's towers stood strong, but the decking, cabling and stairs had to go.  

The Friends of the Poland Municipal Forest, a nonprofit volunteer organization, objected to the assessment and the project's hefty price tag. In its review, MS Consultants estimated that the repair would cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

MS Consultants conducted a more comprehensive review of the bridge, created the design for a new bridge and put together a bid package, all of which cost the village $16,300. Poland village council did not appoint the firm to complete the design until February 2019 — nearly seven months after the bridge was closed.

“I’m going to want to see someone else project these costs,” councilwoman Martha Morgan said at a February 2019 meeting.

But, in the interest of nudging forward the seemingly stalled project, council awarded MS Consultants the design project without seeking bids from other designers. 

Meanwhile, the bridge remained officially closed, but the orange safety fencing wrapped around its entrances did not last long. Forest visitors — maybe rowdy kids, maybe forest users who thought the bridge was, in fact, perfectly safe — tore it down, prompting the village to board up the bridge's entrances.  

Until the repair commenced, "OPEN THE BRIDGE!" was scrawled on the plywood in red marker.  

Despite the debate, the project seemed to finally be moving forward. 

MS Consultants' design plans were publicly released in May 2019. A committee — comprised of representatives of council, the mayor-appointed Poland Municipal Forest Board, the Poland Forest Foundation and the public — was appointed to manage the repair. The Poland Forest Foundation had raised about $70,000 to fund the project.

The construction project went out for bid over the summer. Bids were due Aug. 21. The lowest bid came from Murphy Construction for $86,500. 

Before a bid could be chosen, an anonymous complaint was filed arguing that the design must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.  

Village council — which owns the forest — and the Poland Municipal Forest Board have argued that the bridge repair project is exempt from the law. 

Village Councilman Michael Thompson, who is a lawyer, explained why: “Everything on both sides of the bridge is accessible.”

He said when it comes to wilderness areas, ADA compliance is required where public land offers programs and services. For example, if the bridge was the only route to a public basketball court, it would have to be accessible.

“It is a historic structure, where to try and make it ADA-compliant is economically infeasible,” said Thompson.

After the complaint was filed, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney met with Councilman Mike Thompson and Solicitor Jay Macejko in the woods in October.

In the following weeks, officials were silent, which concerned Poland Forest Foundation President Charles Rumberg. One of his concerns was that, if the project could not proceed as expected, donors would need their money back by year-end for tax purposes. 

After repeated attempts to get answers from local officials — and failing — Rumberg resigned Nov. 7. 

"I'm not going to do all this work and spend all this money and not even get a straight answer," Rumberg said about his resignation. "This isn't an impeachment hearing. This isn't Nixon and Watergate."

"They were there in the woods with the feds," Rumberg told Mahoning Matters in November. "What was said?"

But Mayor Tim Sicafuse insisted that there was no information to share: "It is frustrating, but we don't know anything to tell anyone," said Sicafuse. "We're stuck spinning our wheels."

The week after Mahoning Matters published a story inquiring into the situation, solicitor Jay Macejko was told a federal attorney recommended the bridge deck be widened by 3 inches. 

At a special meeting Nov. 27 — the night before Thanksgiving — the committee overseeing the bridge repair approved the recommendation to widen the deck. That same day, village council awarded the contract to Murphy Construction, which priced the project at $86,500 before design revisions. 

The bridge repair finally commenced in mid-March.

As the cables and decking came down, it became clear how necessary the project was, said Mayor Sicafuse.

"You can really see the damage to it, especially underneath," said Sicafuse. "It needed done. People said it didn't, that it wasn't as bad as we said it was. It really did need some repair."

Barring any unforeseen obstacles, it should open next week.

"With the weather starting to warm up, we'll be glad to have it back in force, that's for sure," said Sicafuse. 

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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