Ken Cowart wants to raise his children in an environment where nature mixes with history, where people value innovation.
He planned to bike the Friendship Trail Bridge with his son before it closed, but never got the chance.
So, when he got a Facebook message to help organize a group to save the bridge, of course he said yes. It was March, and he happened to be in the hospital uploading pictures of his newborn daughter. But he saw this as important for his kids' future. It would be worth the effort.
"There's a tremendous amount of history there," said Cowart, an architect who serves on several community organizations. "And it's the only way you can experience Old Tampa Bay."
With that, Cowart became the latest in a long line of Friendship Trail stalwarts over the years determined to preserve the 2.6-mile span connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. They are a creative, unyielding bunch who roll their eyes at those who say it would be cheaper and safer to just tear it down. The bridge, supporters contend, is important to Tampa Bay and is a unique feature in the area.
They spent hours crafting a professional business plan with pictures of cyclists, families strolling and fishing.
And, for the second time, government officials who seemed set to get rid of the Friendship Trail Bridge decided to listen. Last month, Hillsborough County commissioners delayed the bridge's demolition.
"I'm very impressed with their vision," said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who made the motion to delay demolition. He read more than 120 emails sent to his office, plus messages from 77 people through the county's webmail. Only a few didn't support the bridge, he said.
"Most see the trail's potential as a unique recreational venue," he said.
Cowart, 37, said the plan to tear down the old bridge never made sense. He sees it as a destination park, a place to take your out-of-town guests. Like the High Line, on Manhattan's West Side, he envisions spaces for gardens, kiosks, benches and performance areas.
Kevin Thurman, 32, is a marketing consultant and the guy who sent Cowart the Facebook message in March. Cowart and Thurman worked with a core group of about a dozen supporters. They gathered about 1,500 signatures on a petition. The Facebook group "Save the Friendship Trail Bridge of Tampa Bay" currently has more than 1,000 members.
They devised a business plan called "A Vision Beyond Demolition," with renderings for a redesigned bridge. They attended commission meetings and strongly voiced their opinions.
Their efforts mirrored another push to save the bridge in the late '90s. The bridge had been deemed unsafe in 1995 for vehicles, but reopened in 1999 to pedestrians only. An outcry led by Neil Cosentino, a Davis Islands resident, saved the bridge just before it was to be knocked down. State money to demolish it instead went into fixing it up.
Then, in 2008, inspectors closed the bridge to pedestrians, as well, after finding large sections of its underside crumbling.
Like the original bridge designer, George Gandy, some call both waves of the bridge's activists hopeless visionaries. When it opened in 1924 at a cost of $3 million, the Gandy Bridge was the nation's largest over-water span. An additional span was added in 1956 and, in 1975, when a third span was added, the 1924 bridge was demolished. The latest span was added in 1996 and it was the 1956 span that would become the Friendship Bridge. Now supporters estimate it will cost about $19.5 million to replace. They say they can raise $13 million of that through private business partners. They want local government to chip in the rest.
County commissioners were considering a property tax increase to be placed on the November ballot. They were scheduled to discuss the matter this week.
Either way, hard-core bridge supporters say it must be saved.
Elizabeth Hardin used to walk the bridge at least five times a week. She met people who commuted by foot and fishermen catching their dinners. Hardin, a yoga teacher, is planning a community yoga event at the base of the bridge in the coming weeks to support the restoration.
"It became a community of people that shared this beautiful space together," she said. "This bridge is a place where people go to clear their mind, see some birds, dolphins, a great sunset and a place to go and be at home."
Shannan Anderson, who recently moved near the bridge, would like to run on it. The idea of turning it into a park reminds her of a recent visit to Paris where she saw the Promenade Plantée, built during the 1980s on the skeleton of an old rail system. Similar parks are in the works in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis.
But Anderson thinks only those who use the trail should pay for it. Perhaps through an annual card.
Christina Hagelstein isn't so sure that would work. When the city started charging to use its pools, she worked as a lifeguard at Bobby Hicks Pool. She saw a big drop in attendance. With the concern about obesity, she thinks the city should find other means to support the linear park.
In New York, community members lobbied to save an abandoned train line and transformed it into the High Line, a park that opened in 2009. Private and corporate sources helped pay for the construction and the park's annual operating budget. Now, activists there are considering something similar for the old Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, rather than demolish it when a new one is built.
Here, the supporters' plans estimate the bridge could be renovated with precast steel replacing the current concrete roadway by 2017. But first they need to raise about $100,000 for a feasibility study, planned for early 2013.
One day, Cowart hopes to take his baby girl and his 6-year-old son Maddox there.
He envisions Maddox pedaling his bike across the trail. On a fall day in 2008, he took Maddox there to do just that. The trail had closed a week earlier. He still remembers the disappointment on his son's face.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.