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.
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.”