Business owners tell of woes since I-40 bridge collapse

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. (AP) _ Some business owners have noticed a decrease in customers while others have seen an increase in operating costs since last month's deadly bridge collapse.

Many area merchants met Thursday in Webbers Falls to get information on Small Business Administration disaster relief loans and to discuss with government officials how closing the damaged Interstate 40 bridge has created financial problems for them.

``Summer is our cream,'' said Butch Cox, owner of Charlie's Chicken in Webbers Falls. ``We won't have our cream this year. But we'll survive.''

Cox and other business owners have seen a decline in business since May 26, when a towboat rammed a barge into an I-40 bridge pier, causing the span to collapse into the Arkansas River. Fourteen people were killed.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation officials have said the bridge will be reopened in August. But that can't come soon enough for Cox, who said business at his restaurant is down between 30 percent and 40 percent in what should be his busiest time of the year.

``We're still missing our customers from Gore and Vian,'' Cox said. ``It (the number of customers) has come up here in the last couple of weeks, but nowhere near where we were at this time last year.''

Construction crews working on the bridge have helped offset some losses.

Instead of lost customers, Bob Stone, owner of Stone Mobile Home in Gore, has lost money _ $15,000 since the collapse. Stone said he has had to divert oversized loads of manufactured homes off the interstate onto smaller highways through small towns.

``Because of the detours at Braggs, our detours on single-wide homes run from $400 to $600 (extra) coming in,'' Stone said. ``On double-wides, its an extra $1,000 to bring them in.''

Linda Soos-Davis with the Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management encouraged the business owners to detail their financial losses on the loan form, comparing this year's revenues to last year.

``I want to hear everything in terms of how your business was affected because that gives more information to present to the governor,'' Soos-Davis said.

The forms will be examined by the department and sent to Gov. Frank Keating's office in a few weeks.

Even businesses near Lake Tenkiller are hurting.

Operators of the Fin and Feather Resort, nestled in the hills north of Gore, report slowed business since the accident.

While weekend visits and reservations remain constant, other business isn't as strong, said Teresa Pool, a manager at the resort.

``There's not as many people coming to the lake on a spur of the moment,'' Pool said.

Weekday activity at the restaurant and cabin rentals has been down as much as 30 percent, she said.

Meanwhile, traffic is jammed in the towns along the detour route, but that's not helping merchants.

``All it's doing is causing traffic problems,'' said Audrie Thompson, manager of the Hammons Inn in Stigler. ``You can't even get out on Main Street.''

The SBA forms will be used to determine whether the businesses are eligible for the loans.

``We must find at least five businesses total in Muskogee and Sequoyah counties (in order to qualify the businesses for the loans),'' Soos-Davis said.

The money, however, may not be available until the spring, said Joe Harrington, community economic development director with the Eastern Oklahoma Development District.