As Chris Wood hustles to lighten and liven up a Hurricane Sandy-dimmed downtown Sea Bright with the re-opening of his restaurant, Woody's Ocean Grille, on Wednesday, his spirits have been daunted by the prospect of the looming Rumson-Sea Bright Bridge closure.
With Monmouth County officials estimating that the bridge will be closed off to traffic for a few weeks starting "on or about Jan. 28," right after now-closed Oceanic Bridge is re-opened, it's like telling Wood that the lifeblood of a major artery in and out of town, to and from his and the only four other open Sea Bright businesses, is clotted.
"This is killing me. It's knocking me and the other Sea Bright business that just got back on their feet down after reviving ourselves from the devastating punch Sandy gave us," Wood, a Fair Haven resident who also founded Sea Bright Rising, said.
"I know this work has to be done. I know it's probably better to get it done in the winter months. But what I'm asking is 'Can't they come to some sort of compromise and either do the work with sporadic closings or at least leave one lane of traffic open?' I'm hearing no, and that's really bad news. It's just not right. Had I even known they were going to do this I may have opted to not open until March."
County officials have said that this maintenance and gate installation work, some of which is Sandy-wrought, must be done prior to a coming months-long bridge closing to replace the deteriorating drawbridge.
“This work (to be done by IEW Construction Group) is required because the existing equipment is outdated and replacement parts are becoming more difficult to find,” County Engineer Joseph M. Ettore, P.E. said in a released statement. “Addressing these maintenance issues now will reduce the disruption of vehicular and pedestrian traffic during the summer months.”
The bridge, according to county officials, is slated to re-open on Feb. 18, "weather permitting."
Wood said he poured $200,000 worth of work into his restaurant, the first floor of which was ruined. He just got shipment of $50,000 worth of liquor in on Friday, too, he said.
He also has a slew of employees coming off the unemployment rolls and eager to get back to work. Much of his customer base comes from the Rumson area right on the other side of the bridge. Detouring to get to downtown Sea Bright from Highlands or Monmouth Beach adds a good 20 minutes to an otherwise two-minute convenient ride over and likely lops off a lot of customers who would have normally just popped over on a whim, he said.
Always calling himself lucky to have not sustained the structural damage that walloped other Sea Bright businesses and applying that luck to aid others left homeless and without their livelihoods via Sea Bright Rising, Wood is not feeling so lucky in the face of the bridge closing after five days of his place opening. But he hasn't given up on the notion of a compromise.
"I've called (Senator) Joe Kyrillos," he said. "There must be something that can be done. Hey, I am still very grateful for making it through Sandy. We just need a break. Not just me, but the other businesses that are open and those who are trying to open, too. Sea Bright has just been through so much."
Wood has his own special connection to Sea Bright and the restaurant, which was Ichabod's until he bought it. Growing up in Rumson, being a Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School grad, he worked at Ichabod's and spent a lot of time in Sea Bright. It's a tradition for those who grow up in the area. And getting the restaurant open bustling with activity, he said, is symbolic for him as a sign that Sea Bright is rising above Sandy.
Woody's will be open at 11:30 a.m. starting tomorrow for lunch through the evening dinner hour and its usual closing time. The restaurant/bar will open on a “winter” schedule for lunch, serving lunch Wednesday through Sunday, while serving dinner seven nights a week.
"Our entire staff is super excited to be back and we look forward to seeing everyone again," Wood said on his Sea Bright Rising Facebook page. "We can't wait! See you soon."
The schedule may be modified because of the bridge closing, he added.