WHITEMOUTH -- When a group of landowners set out to privately fund the rebuilding of a bridge over the Whitemouth River, you might have expected the Manitoba Chamber of Commerce to applaud.
After all, the chamber supports private initiative and less reliance on government.
Instead, two local chambers in the area asked the eight landowners to cease and desist. They were setting a dangerous precedent, the chambers told them. Other municipalities could start to demand their residents also put up capital for infrastructure projects.
The landowners didn't desist and are now close to achieving their goal. But they've learned building a bridge in the 21st century isn't easy.
Actually, the original bridge, on the east side of the town of Whitemouth, 90 kilometres east of Winnipeg, was privately owned. Arnold Riedle, owner of Riedle's Brewery in Winnipeg that operated from 1907 to 1950, moved to the east side of the Whitemouth River in 1933. He built the bridge over the river using the proceeds from all those barley sandwiches.
"(The bridge) was all built by shovel, wheelbarrow and sledgehammer," said Juanita Cousins, who lives with husband, Jerry, on the east side. Remarkably, the wood-plank, single-lane bridge stood for nearly 80 years.
The province eventually took it over, then off-loaded it to the RM of Whitemouth. It started to crumble and was closed to cars and trucks in 2003, but people could still walk across or use ATVs or bicycles. Now the entire bridge is barricaded.
In 2003, municipal officials assured people the bridge would be rebuilt. But years slipped by and it became obvious the council of the day wasn't interested. Eighteen months ago, the landowners decided to raise their own funds. "We had to show the RM we mean business," said Cousins.
Three of the eight landowners run small businesses, two are dairy farmers. The business people put up $75,000 each. Other individuals in the group chipped in up to $10,000 each.
"There are a lot of Type A personalities on this side of the river. We're aggressive people," Cousins said.
People in the town of Whitemouth, population just over 300, also chipped in up to $1,000 each. About $260,000 has been raised so far. Meantime, suppliers to farms east of Whitemouth, such as fertilizer, seed and fuel companies, have chipped in $5,000 each in inputs, or the equivalent of $25,000. The crop production from those inputs will go toward the bridge.
That still only comes to $300,000. A new bridge would cost $1.6 million. Cousins said the group discovered paying for the bridge "is the cheap part." The bigger costs are the engineers, consultants, drillers to anchor the bridge, the road approaches (they have to be raised to meet new flood-prevention guidelines) and the demolition.
However, the bridge is to receive $770,000 in federal-provincial money meant to repair flood damage a few years ago. The money was targeted for a slumped road, but the road can't be fixed. Council has set aside an additional $120,000.
That amounts to about $1.2 million. A public hearing will be held later this year for a borrowing bill for the rest of the cost. If approved, construction could start as early as January.
"To make such an investment is amazing," Whitemouth chief administrator Laurie Kjartanson said of the bridge contributors.
"You don't see that anywhere else except in small communities like this. There's a sense of community with your neighbour."
Why so much angst over a 55-metre-long bridge? After all, there is a 10-kilometre detour that lets you cross the Whitemouth River on Highway 44 to get into town. Granted, it's a rutted, gravel road with an unmarked railway crossing that gets 30 trains a day.
The reasons may be more social than economic. "We're not part of this community anymore," said Cousins. You can't just walk or bike into town to buy groceries, get your mail and newspaper, or have coffee with friends. "Here's one small example. There's a little bar in town. I like to go on 'wings night' and have two or three beer. I can't now." Why not? "I can't drink and drive."
Added Harm Sikkenga, a dairy farmer east of Whitemouth: "We look out the window and see the town but we can't get there." Sikkenga said families in his area go to town at least twice a day. He always has to make small trips for his farm. Also, he can't get local kids to work on his farm after school anymore because the kids need driver's licences now.
Whitemouth Reeve Allan Kropelnicki said no one should think the bridge is just about eight residences. The whole community uses the bridge to walk, bike or drive into the country to connect with friends living on roads with names like River, Ladyslipper and Scotts Hill.