BELFAST, Maine — Veterans groups and the City Council began to find some common ground Tuesday night over plans to add benches and lighting to the city’s Armistice Bridge, better known locally as the footbridge.
Conflict arose last month over preliminary efforts by the downtown booster group Our Town Belfast to seek grant funding for raised seating areas and benches for the bridge, which was built in 1921 and replaced by the current Route 1 bridge in the early ’60s. The old bridge was repaired and reopened to pedestrians and cyclists only in 2006.
Veterans groups said the bridge, dedicated 91 years ago as a memorial to those who served in World War I, should not be treated as a recreational facility.
Tammy Lacher Scully, one of the leaders in getting the city to repair the bridge several years after its deck began collapsing into the harbor, told councilors at their Tuesday night meeting that she and Tim Parker of the VFW believe their views on the proposal had been misrepresented.
Scully said she and Parker represented a coalition of groups, including the Friends of the Bridge and the local American Legion and AmVets, who objected to “elements of an idea we couldn’t support.” Specifically, she said, the Our Town proposal sounded as if it would make the bridge “more of a place to congregate” rather than an uncongested bicycle and pedestrian link.
Scully and Parker also want the character of the bridge to remain consistent with its original dedication as a traditional war memorial.
The groups the two represented now are willing to accept minimal seating on the bridge, she said, as long as it does not change the bridge’s character.
“This process has been a wake-up call for us,” Scully said, inspiring them to educate the public about the memorial nature of the bridge and investigate registering it with state and national groups that list such war memorials.
Scully presented the council with photographs of precast concrete benches which her group would accept being installed on the portions of the bridge where the deck widens.
Councilor Mike Hurley expressed his dislike of the benches, calling them “ugly” and noting that they did not have backs. He also told Scully that he came face-to-face with opposition to the preliminary plans.
“I ran into a representative of one of these groups,” he said, and was subjected to “a pile of ‘f’ words,” one of which was “flatlander,” he said. The unnamed person, a member of a veterans group, told Hurley he didn’t want a “flatlander” pushing art into a place it didn’t belong.
Hurley also said that when the case was being made to repair the bridge, veterans groups did not work to persuade voters to support the expenditure.
Parker was unaware of the confrontation Hurley encountered, he said, and apologized on behalf of the unnamed man.
Parker added that he spoke to the American Legion and AmVets groups, as well as his VFW group, and all three supported the addition of benches and did not take the strident position that Hurley encountered.
“That’s not where we are,” Parker said.
Parker also suggested that any grant funding be used to improve the areas on land at either end of the bridge, rather than on the bridge itself.
Councilor Roger Lee said he wanted to hear from all sides before the city endorsed the grant application by Our Town. Earlier in the meeting, Breanna Pinkham Bebb, executive director of Our Town, said she would not know until Jan. 15 whether or not her organization would be invited to pursue the next phase of the grant bid.
The council took no action on the matter.