MANCHESTER — A downtown footbridge over the West Branch of the Battenkill took a leap forward Thursday evening with a $250,000 challenge grant from the Drunsic family foundation.
The Right Track Foundation grant was a surprise announcement from Stephen Drunsic, who spoke with fans and friends of the path along the town artery at a reveal event sponsored by the Manchester Riverwalk Association at the Union Underground restaurant on Main Street.
The association is the group behind the effort to build a bridge over the West Branch of the Battenkill River. The path will connect Factory Point Town Green and downtown Manchester Center.
Drunsic said the vision for a downtown river crossing began back in the 1970s; rivers are a natural amenity capitalized upon by towns like Winooski and Middlebury, and Drunsic said Manchester can do the same with a more accessible Battenkill.
“It’s time to move it from idea to fruition,” said Drunsic, son of town father William Drunsic, who owns Charlie’s Coffee House and many other town businesses.
For the grant to be issued, the association will look to the community for matching donations.
Firm VHB of Burlington authored the bridge designs. When the $800,000 span is eventually brought to town, it will come in two massive pieces that will have a home on the town green before being lifted into position by crane. The bridge will have South American hardwood decking and framing that intentionally rusts into a sealed coating.
Once in place, the town will take over the bridge from the association. The agreement to solidify that agreement was on the agenda at a recent Select Board meeting, but the item was tabled until the next meeting.
The bridge is meant to benefit the town, and the river and its inhabitants, Michael Cooperman noted; he’s not only an association board member but also a doctor of fisheries science.
He refers to the Battenkill River as “natural capital,” namely a pastoral, meandering waterway with a fish-rich reputation that draws loads of recreational tourism dollars.
“It’s money in the bank for the community,” Cooperman said. The Battenkill’s legendary trout status being cemented way back in the 1940s and ‘50s as “the preeminent trout fishery in the U.S.,” intoned in the same breaths as the rivers of the West, he noted. “Riverwalk has the potential to benefit the river and therefore the community.”
The bridge and river access will allow wildlife biologists and their helpers to repair the river ecosystem, which has been hurt by Mother Nature and subsequent human intervention. That’s left the river “wood and spawning gravel deficient,” offering little protective cover and few beds to receive fertilized fish eggs.
With the bridge over the river, it will offer a viewing area of the rehab project, Cooperman said. The aim is not to replicate the natural river healing process for the river, but to speed it up, he said, so it will takes months instead of years.
Cooperman said one of the biggest challenges for fisheries rehabilitation experts is lack of access. He said he hopes the project will serve as a positive example that will capture the interest of landowners with access to the river.
Margaret Donovan, association board president and one of the event’s coordinators and speakers, said Thursday’s event will mark the beginning of a renewed funding effort.
“We’re not asking anyone for money tonight, but we do hope you’ll be generous when we come around,” said Donovan.
Installation is expected in 2022 or 2023, depending on fundraising and execution of work. Donations can be made via the Riverwalk website at manchesterriverwalk.org.