Businesses brace for 18-month closing of Lyme-East Thetford bridge

By JUSTIN CAMPFIELD

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 04-23-2023 4:11 PM

LYME — Long planned — and panned by some residents — the 18-month closure of the Lyme-East Thetford bridge will commence Thursday, disrupting the daily routines of residents and businesses on both sides of the Connecticut River.

The $8.94 million project aims to rehabilitate the bridge on Route 113 straddling the river between the two communities. Built in 1937, it is currently on New Hampshire’s Red List and is posted for a reduced weight limit of 15 tons.

During construction, which is slated to be completed in October 2024, detours will take motorists seeking to cross the Connecticut River either north to Bridge Street, or Route 25A, between Fairlee and Orford, or south to the Ledyard Bridge between Norwich and Hanover.

The subsequent detours — about 15 miles to the north or 24 miles to the south — are expected to be a big blow to businesses that rely on customers crossing the river.

Employees at Wings Market in East Thetford estimate that as much as 40% of their customers come from Lyme, and they don’t expect to see the bulk of them while the bridge is closed.

“I think we’ll just lose a lot of our customers to other stores,” said Donna Paye, a Wing’s Market shift leader. “They’ll have to drive to Fairlee or Hanover, so I think they’ll just go to a store in one of those other places.”

To counter the expected dip in business, Paye has ordered about 20% less inventory for the coming months, but that could shift depending on how the numbers look once the changes in customer habits brought about by the bridge closure are more clear.

“We’ll see what the impact is and go from there,” she said.

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East Thetford’s Cedar Circle Farm and its farmstand, café and greenhouses rely even more on New Hampshire residents, with Executive Director Eric Tadlock putting the number at as much as 50%.

“We have a really strong customer base in Lyme, and we are going to feel their absence,” he said.

The nonprofit educational organic farm has budgeted a 15% decrease in gross revenues for the upcoming summer season, mostly due to expected losses in vegetable sales. Tadlock said that he doesn’t expect to see declines in its summer camp or educational programs because the strong demand for summer programming from Upper Valley families will make up for any losses from the bridge closing.

Cedar Circle plans to respond to the expected loss of sales by delivering customer orders three times a week to the historical horse sheds on John Thomson Way in Lyme, next to the Lyme Congregational Church. The goal, said Tadlock, is not necessarily to recover all of the lost revenue but to protect future sales when the bridge does reopen.

“We just really want to maintain relationships with our loyal Lyme customers,” Tadlock said. “It’s a lot to ask them to make that trip.”

Cedar Circle is not the only entity looking to arrange for deliveries across the river.

The Thetford Hill Gang, an informal group that likes to call themselves “THUGS,” is a group of about eight men who gather once a month for breakfast at the Thetford Congregational Church to talk about “anything that matters to us,” said Gene Kadish, an East Thetford resident who is a member of the group.

When discussion turned toward the pending bridge closure, the THUGS began talking about the impact on local businesses and residents and decided to do something about it. Beginning around mid-May, the group plans to organize a weekly pickup at Stella’s Italian Kitchen & Market for anyone on the Vermont side of the bridge that places an order at the Lyme eatery.

The meals will be brought for pick-up to the congregational church free of charge; however, the group will ask users to consider a donation to the church’s Floyd Dexter Community Service Fund, which provides donations to families and individuals struggling to meet basic needs such as food, heating and medical care.

“If it works out well, we may add other restaurants,” said Kadish, who added that the program’s details are still being worked out and will be posted to the Thetford Listserv in the coming weeks. “We thought takeout from Stella’s would be the easiest to manage. We hope that we won’t be super-overwhelmed but also hope there will be enough people that take advantage of it.”

The project’s long planning stage — the bridge was red-listed in 2013, and the first public to discuss it took place in 2014 — did allow for the Lyme Fire Department to plan ahead as the bridge closure will prevent one of its primary mutual aid partners, Thetford, from assisting in emergencies.

“We’ve worked hard to increase our internal response capabilities and staffing during this planned time period and adjusted pre-plans for events that require additional mutual aid responses,” Lyme Fire Chief Aaron Rich wrote in an email to the Valley News.

The department currently has seven students enrolled in an EMT course that will be completed in early June. Rich also pointed to the recent acquisition of a utility task vehicle (UTV), which is a larger ATV-like off-road vehicle, as an example of planning ahead for the bridge’s closure.

“We have historically relied on mutual aid partners, with Thetford and Hanover providing UTV support to a number of calls over recent years,” Rich wrote. “The bridge closure directly affected our ability to rely upon Thetford’s equipment.”

The bridge’s closure is not expected to impact EMS calls in Lyme, however, as the town’s primary ambulance services come from the Hanover Fire Department.

As previously reported by the Valley News, a number of residents clamored for changes to the project — including installation of a temporary bridge — at a public forum held last November at Thetford Academy. However, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation ruled out those options for reasons that included financial constraints and adverse impacts on the environment and historical buildings in the vicinity of the project.

“Our plan is to close the bridge, get this rehab work done as quickly as we can and get the bridge reopened,” Jennifer Reczek, the DOT’s project manager, told residents at the forum.

And while the 18-month closure will certainly be inconvenient for local residents and businesses, a planned closure is better than an unplanned one, according to Rich.

“We would all love for this to be a one-month closure, but I’m very excited frankly to see a bridge that has been in desperate need of repairs and replacement being addressed before an event occurs that would require unplanned closure for an unknown time frame,” he said.

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com.

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