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Construction on Townsend's covered bridge begins, set to finish in under two months

After more than 20 years of speculation, deliberation, fundraising and various stops and starts, crews began construction on Blount County’s only public covered bridge early this week.

Commonly known as “the bridge at Kinzel Springs” or the “Sunshine” bridge, the structure once used as a single-lane road was closed for years until several like-minded Townsend enthusiasts decided to save it from destruction.

Monday marked the first day of significant construction on the bridge and by Wednesday, workers from Quality Steel out of Knoxville had five steel arches up.

The arches are set to take only 10 working days to complete, and the tin roofing will soon follow, according to Richard Maples, who has been heading up the project for more than a year.

Roofing will take around two to three weeks, Maples said, and altogether, weather permitting, the bridge should be done within five to six weeks and — after some necessary paving work — ready for pedestrian traffic.

“We’re off to the races,” Maples said. “We’ve got all the money in hand and we’re ready to go.”

Maples is a businessman from Knoxville and while he and others have been adamantly pursuing funding for the bridge for years, the project was only recently fully funded.

Its price tag sits at between $250,000 to $300,000 and officials had secured $212,800 by April. Maples confirmed that he personally paid for the remainder of the costs, allowing the bridge to move into its first phase of construction before summer’s end.

But before Maples and others secured the funds needed to turn the bridge from an eyesore to a pedestrian-friendly piece of architecture matching the Townsend aesthetic, funding debates abounded.

It was built in 2009, but a Tennessee Department of Transportation grant to keep it up was both given the go-ahead and then taken away in 2012.

The political winds finally shifted in 2018 when the county approved $175,000 for the project, breathing life into it with much-needed repairs and a fresh coat of paint.

Today, city officials including Townsend city Recorder Danny Williamson and Mayor Ron Palewski said they are enthusiastic about what the bridge will add to the city, especially in terms of its tourism value.

Responsibility agreements

But Williamson said the city will have an investment in the bridge as well, explaining that once the construction is complete, the bridge will be leased over to Townsend.

It is completely inside Blount County limits, just outside the city.

The lease itself shows that the city will technically rent the bridge from the county for $1 every year. The city will be responsible for upkeep, meaning that the bridge “shall be kept in a good state of repair and in compliance with all applicable federal, state and county regulations,” according to the lease.

Townsend is also bound to a keep public liability insurance policy on the bridge for at least $1 million per incident.

Another agreement between the city and the Townsend Cades Cove Gateway Alliance — a nonprofit focused on improvement in the area — shows that though the alliance is responsible for paying for the bridge’s construction, and that it will not have any responsibility for maintaining it after work is finished.

The alliance has been a significant player in seeing the bride project through and is the organization through which donated funds are being administered.

Connecting two highways

Though Townsend commissioners have not expressed concern about upkeep during 2019 meetings, they have brought up the potential hazards with foot traffic in the area.

With the bridge set directly across East Lamar Alexander Parkway — U.S. Highway 321 — from the Townsend Volunteer Fire Department, there are fears visitors may park at the station and attempt to cross the highway to enjoy the bridge.

Maples indicated he was looking into a better, safer plan.

“I’ve had someone that’s been in contact with TDOT about the possibilities of putting a little parking lot, if you’re looking at the bridge from 321, to the right of it,” he said. “You can get four, five or six parking spots in there.” TDOT currently owns the land Maples is interested in.

“And I’ll probably end up having to raise money for that ,too,” he said with a laugh.

But he said he’s up to the challenge as he and others want to make the new attraction as welcoming as possible.

Though Maples has been a lead on the project for the past year, his inspiration comes from an old friend who originally conceived of the idea: Jim Hinds, former owner of the Richmont Inn and who passed away before the bridge came to fruition.

A plaque in his memory will be placed on the bridge during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its opening, Maples said.

Though no official name had been settled on over the years, Maples confirmed that the bridge will be called the “Townsend Sunshine” bridge: A sign with the city’s name will be placed next to U.S. Highway 321, and on the end connecting it to Old Walland Highway, with a sign reading “Sunshine.”

Clayton-Bradley Academy breaks ground for final education building

With a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday, Clayton-Bradley Academy celebrated the upcoming construction of the final education building on its campus, which will raise capacity at the private school to 570 students.

More than 300 students lined up on the outline of the “Student Union Educational Building” for the speeches and to be filmed by a drone flying overhead.

Executive Director Pat Bradley noted that three of the 10 members of the Class of 2020 were among the first 77 students when when the school opened in 2013.

Bradley thanked parents for “taking a step of faith with us,” and enrolling their children when the campus was just a grassy hill. “I think that was pretty courageous of them,” she said.

She credited Keven Clayton, CEO of Clayton and a board member for the school, for turning her dreams for an innovative school into a reality.

“What we’re doing here is really changing education,” Clayton said, calling the project-based approach at the center of the school a “smarter, more relevant way to learn.”

Just like the fast growth at Clayton Homes, he said, it reminds him of the need to “#stayflexible” through what can be challenging change.

“The next five or six or seven years is probably going to be more exciting,” he said.

Mary Bogert, vice chair of the school’s Innovative Education Partnerships board, said the school was designed to grow the pipeline of engineers, scientists and others in STEM-related disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) “needed to support the growing talent demand for Innovation Valley.”

Clayton-Bradley Academy is “the fastest growing independent school in the state of Tennessee,” she said.

Three new cottage-style classroom buildings already have been added to the upper campus, with plans for middle school students to move in during fall break. That will bring grades six through 12 together in that part of the campus.

By the beginning of the 2020-21 school year the school hopes to complete the 22,498-square-foot building that will house advanced science labs, a maker space, a robotics lab, a cafe and collaborative learning spaces.

“I’m just so excited to have a bigger space to make more things,” said 11th grader Izzy Miya, citing the 3D printers and wood carving machine now located in a classroom.

She’s also looking forward to the new cafe, which will look very different than a traditional cafeteria. The upper school students already have access to microwaves, a panini maker and a coffee cart, and the school is beginning to invite food trucks to campus. Right now finding space to sit together during lunch is a challenge.

“They’re going to have opportunities to do whatever they want to do for lunch,” Bradley said.

Clayton said the total project, including the cottages and new building, is “in the $10 million range.”

Clayton Homes builds the modular classroom cottages for the school, and Johnson Architecture designed the student union, to be built by Joseph Construction.

Senior Max Fields remembers standing in the field of foot-high grass on the campus just months before the school opened and wondering how there would be buildings in time. His sixth grade class grew from just four boys to 10 students the following year.

“I knew so many people were hearing about this and interested enough to really put faith in it and explore what it’s all about,” he said.

The school has helped Max figure out what he is passionate about, cinematography.

“The thing I love about this school is the community aspect,” Izzy said. “You’re free to be yourself, and they push you to be yourself.”

Although this is the last education building planned for the campus on Alcoa Trail, Clayton said in an interview after the ceremony, “It would be a wonderful dream if we could also build a fine arts center.”

A family gathering center already houses music and other programs. “It really would be nice in the future to have a true fine arts center for the school,” he said, possibly after Clayton-Bradley reaches capacity, estimated to be in five years or earlier.

He noted parents already have been paying tuition of about $10,000 for those 300 students, hoping the administration would finish the high school. “That is the definition of faith,” Clayton said.

“Our goal is not to suggest this is the best school in the region,” he said. “This area is known for great educational schools. We want to be another one of those, because every child is different, and every great, thriving community needs multiple school choices.”

Deputy honored for saving Sevier County man's life

Dying was the last thing Seth Lafollette expected on July 13, when he and a friend, Koleman Roach, hit the waters of Poland Creek for a fishing tournament.

Lafollette’s mother, Cynthia McKay, was getting ready to board a plane when the call all parents dread came.

Roach tried to revive Lafollette with CPR after he suddenly collapsed in their boat.

“They said he went into cardiac arrest,” McKay said. “They said he had been taken to a hospital and was put on ventilation.”

Lafollette, 21, a Sevier County utility worker, was healthy and had no history of heart disease before he experienced a ventricular fibrillation, a common cause of sudden heart failure.

The irony that another mother’s quick thinking and skill saved his life wasn’t lost on anyone who was on hand to watch McKay and her husband, Gary, help to award Blount County Sheriff’s Deputy Elizabeth Murphy her Lifesaving Award pin Wednesday morning at BCSO headquarters.

Murphy jolted his heart with two vital electric shocks using an automated external defibrillator before continuing CPR.

“The doctors said that’s the only reason he survived,” McKay said.

McKay’s quivering voice dropped almost to a whisper as she described how Murphy’s skill kept her son from becoming an organ donor that day.

“Thank you for saving my son,” McKay said as she hugged Murphy.

“I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s children, Jayden, 7, and Jasmine, 6, helped McKay to pin her badge to her uniform.

Were it not for the foresight of Blount County management, Lafollette’s story could have had a different ending.

American Medical Response operations director Jonathan Rodgers said Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell approached the agency to create an emergency medical response program that would allow deputies to perform basic lifesaving maneuvers before an ambulance arrives.

The program also allows those trained to use AEDs to carry one in their car, which can mean the difference between life and death.

“It’s always nice to have a second set of hands that know what they are doing,” Rodgers said. “The good thing about it is, we can plug their equipment into ours and keep going when we get there.”

Lafollette missed work for a period after his crisis, but he’s getting back to normal, his mother said.

“She not only saved his life, he was lucky enough to be able to walk away with no neurological damage,” McKay said. “He walked out of the hospital neurologically intact, and I am so grateful for that.”