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Mackinac Bridge closure for Labor Day walk has businesses preparing for stranded drivers

By Kathleen Gray/Detroit Free Press (TNS) • Aug 30, 2017 at 4:00 PM

ST. IGNACE — On Labor Day, Mark Sposito and the LaSalle High School varsity softball team he coaches will set up near the St. Ignace entrance to the Mackinac Bridge to sell water to the thousands of people participating in the annual end-of-summer tradition of walking across the 5-mile span that links the Upper and Lower peninsulas.

The proceeds from the sale will cover much of the expenses for the team for the upcoming season. This year, there may be even more money for organizations and businesses on both sides of the bridge.

They’ll have much more of a captive audience this year as the bridge will be closed for the first time to most vehicle traffic to accommodate the walk, which annually attracts between 30,000 and 60,000 people, including the governor.

Traffic is expected to back up for miles on I-75 and U.S. 2 — the main arteries that feed into the Mackinac Bridge — while the bridge is closed 6:30 a.m. to noon on Labor Day.

“Do you know how much a softball bat costs? $400. This is a small town, so we have to take every opportunity to fund our sporting teams,” Sposito said, adding the St. Ignace hockey association also plans to continue its tradition of selling water and coffee to bridge walkers.

Sposito’s brother Tom Sposito, who owns the Driftwood Motel, Restaurant and Sports Bar in St. Ignace, plans to have his six walk-in coolers and freezers packed to the gills to accommodate not only the bridge walkers, but the drivers stranded in St. Ignace by the bridge closure.

“I have a feeling we’re going to get a lot of ornery customers. I’ve been that person who hasn’t been able to get across the bridge,” he said, when the span has been forced to close occasionally because of high winds or ice falling from the bridge cables.

He recalled a windy October day several years ago when the Upper Peninsula was packed with people enjoying the fall color show. The high winds forced the closure of the bridge for several hours on a Sunday while people were trying to get home. Traffic backed up for 8 miles.

“There wasn’t anything left in the walk-in coolers after that,” he said.

After vehicles became one of the weapons of choice for terrorists across the world, the Michigan State Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided that the annual bridge walk presented too much of a potential target. In the past, participants have walked from St. Ignace to Mackinaw City on the northbound lanes of the bridge and the southbound lanes were left open for vehicle traffic.

This year, the walkers will still use the northbound lanes, but the southbound lanes of the bridge will be open only to the shuttle buses that transport walkers from one side of the bridge to the other and emergency vehicles. All other drivers will be left cooling their engines for at least 5 1/2 hours on either side of the bridge.

“The Michigan State Police and Department of Homeland Security had discussions on the vulnerabilities of the bridge in light of what we’ve seen globally with the use of vehicles to target pedestrians,” said Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the state police. “Because of the unique challenges that the bridge brings, we thought it was a good idea to put additional measures in place to heighten security.”

There have been no direct threats of any type of incident on the bridge, Banner said, but the recent ISIS attacks in Barcelona and the coastal city of Cambrils in Spain that killed 15 pedestrians and wounded more than 100, as well as the white supremacist attack in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead and 19 injured only reinforced the decision to shut the bridge on Labor Day.

“What continues to go on globally makes us realize that this was the correct decision,” she said. “We want to ensure this is a safe event.”

Residents of Mackinaw City and St. Ignace agree that the inconvenience will be worth the peace of mind the closure will bring.

“Yeah, it’s unfortunate. It certainly works better the other way,” said Jamie Mersch, director of the Mackinaw City Chamber of Commerce. “But, of course, we want to play it safe. And it’s certainly better than shutting the walk down altogether. We don’t want that.”

The state is gearing up for the closure by setting up Porta Johns, and water and snack stations along the freeways in both the Upper and Lower peninsulas, deploying mechanics on both sides of the bridge to help people with vehicle problems and adding more troopers to help regulate traffic.

And businesses also are preparing for the onslaught of both walkers and stranded motorists in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace.

At Wienerlicious, a hot dog and coney restaurant in Mackinaw City, manager Jason Thompson is increasing his normal weekly order of hot dogs from 400 pounds to 1,000.

“It will be our fourth Labor Day and that’s our biggest sales day of the year,” he said.

He’ll open at 9 a.m. rather than 11 a.m. “But people aren’t really looking for a hot dog at 7 a.m.,” Thompson said.

He’ll get some competition from the American Legion, which will set up a tent three blocks from the freeway on Huron Street, the main drag through Mackinaw City. Every Labor Day, the organization capitalizes on the crowds and sells hot dogs, chips and water, said Linda Maass, the Legion’s commander of Post 159. “We’re getting extra this year. We’re always busy on Labor Day.”

In St. Ignace, the Cedars Motel lost four bookings because of the bridge closure, but were able to fill the rooms and even booked a couple of extra nights.

“Some of our guests are able to stay over on Monday night, so we got a few extra bookings for Monday,” said owner Kathy Nolan.

At Casey’s Drive-in along U.S. 2, manager Erin Patti is putting on additional servers and cooks for what’s expected to be an especially busy Labor Day of flipping their signature “Big C” burger.

“But we’re a busy restaurant. We’re used to big crowds,” she said.

One gas station employee along U.S. 2 in St. Ignace, who wouldn’t give his name because he’s not authorized to talk to the media, had a word of advice for the Upper Peninsula travelers.

“It’s better to park your car in Mackinaw City and stay there because it’s going to be nightmare,” he said.

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Mackinac Bridge Walk

First bridge walk on Labor Day: 1958

How many: Between 30,000 and 60,000 walkers each year

Who walks: Lots of people, including the sitting governor and many northern Michigan politicians. Always free and open to the public.

This year: For the first time, the bridge will be closed from 6:30 a.m.-noon to most vehicle traffic.

Logistics: Walkers will walk from St. Ignace, beginning at 7 a.m., to Mackinaw City using the northbound lanes of the bridge. Shuttle buses transporting walkers from one side of the bridge to the other and emergency vehicles will use southbound lanes. No walkers will be allowed to begin the stroll across the 5-mile span after 10 a.m. and anyone still walking on the bridge at 11:30 a.m. will be picked up and driven to the Mackinaw City side of the bridge.

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