A Tale Of Two Cities, A River, And A Bridge Collapse

Jun 19, 2013

From I-5 North, you can look to your left and see the Skagit Valley Food Co-op. It’s right in downtown Mount Vernon, just south of the Skagit River and the bridge collapse. Jodie Buller is the Outreach and Marketing Coordinator at the co-op, and the day after the bridge collapse, she was feeling pretty optimistic.

“Traffic wasn’t bad downtown,” she recalls. “And people were in that camaraderie zone, you know? A lot of checking in, and then it was just dead in here over Memorial Day weekend.”  

Memorial Day weekend is the kickoff to summer travel season, and the co-op usually gets a bump in sales from travelers picking up provisions on their way to the North Cascades or a state park. But the travelers didn’t come through this time. Even worse, the locals didn’t come through, and it’s locals that make the co-op thrive. According to Jodie, the co-op’s been a hub for people from all over the Valley for years. “It’s that third place feeling, you know? You run into people you know here,” she says.

Jodie estimates the bridge collapse and traffic detour knocked sales back to where they were two years ago. The co-op’s currently not making a profit, and management’s been forced to cut the hours of the co-op’s 150 employees. Jodie says that’s the scariest part. The co-op’s cut around 300 hours so far, but that’s still not enough to bring the co-op back to where it needs to be financially.

The co-op isn’t the only Mount Vernon business hit hard by the bridge collapse. Nancy Thomas owns Lickety Clips Grooming Salon and Pet Styling Academy. Her business took a nosedive of around 75 percent in the days after the bridge went down. But unlike the co-op, Nancy can’t cut employee hours to make ends meet.

Her salon is also a state-certified vocational school. So her staff are students who have paid tuition to learn how to groom dogs, and if there aren’t enough dogs booked at Lickety Clips, Nancy and her students bring in their own dogs. “They’re sick of being groomed right now,” laughs Nancy.

Lickety Clips is located on Riverside Drive, right along the detour route. Nancy moved the salon there last year, and she says over the last year, business on Riverside Drive has been “slam-jammin." But at the moment, her location is a big problem for her clients, which she totally understands. Nobody wants to sit through stop-and-go traffic just to run errands. 

“And is dog grooming the most important thing on the plate for them right now? Probably not,” Nancy admits. So Nancy’s been offering a dog pickup and drop off service so her clients don’t have to sit in detour traffic on Riverside Drive. She’s also been offering bridge collapse specials, like many businesses along the congested detour route.

Once you get north of the Skagit River via the detour, Riverside Drive becomes Burlington Boulevard. Lots of businesses along the detour are slyly acknowledging that people are stuck in traffic by providing drivers with some fun reading. The sign at the chiropractor’s office reads, "Your bridge to health." The sign at the florist’s says, "Flowers - nature’s road rage cure." Other businesses speak more directly to drivers with signs that say, "Thank you for your patience and patronage."

That message of thanks dovetails with a marketing campaign devised by many of the towns in the Skagit Valley. The message is simple: We’re still open. There’s even a television commercial.

The "we" part of the "we’re open" message is something Alex Kim has really come to appreciate. Alex owns Sakura Japanese Steak House, just north of the Skagit River in Burlington. His business declined 30 percent in the week after the bridge collapse.  But he started getting support from a place he hadn’t expected: other business owners.

“If you live in a bigger city, you don’t know what the word local means oftentimes. But co-working together, brainstorming together, you know, getting together to find out how we can be better together as a whole. I think that’s what local means,” explains Alex.

Even with the temporary bridge span open, that local support and cooperation Alex Kim talks about will continue to be crucial. The span is narrower than the original bridge, and the speed limit will be 40 miles an hour -- slower than the original speed limit. So traffic still won’t be back to normal.

But back at the co-op, Jodie Buller says traffic shouldn’t deter anyone from exploring the Skagit Valley. Instead, she encourages people to go really local by using the back roads. “You might actually get a glimpse of something magical. We do call this the magic Skagit, and there’s truth to that. But that’s not on the I-5 corridor. That’s out on the side bends,” Jodie points out. “So, persevere! Be courageous! Be like astronauts!”

Washington Bridges Perform Well Nationally

Credit Courtesy of Transportation For America

There's a lot of water in Washington state, and therefore a lot of bridges. Transportation for America put together the numbers of structurally deficient bridges by state county and compared Washington to the rest of the country. There's good news: Washington is ranked 46 out of 51 states (including Washington, D.C.) in structurally deficient bridges. Pennsylvania performed the worst with 24.5 percent of bridges considered deficient.