- Associated Press - Thursday, April 17, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Gov. Mary Fallin said Thursday she is disappointed that a federal agency denied a request for loans to businesses in two Oklahoma towns affected by an emergency bridge closure.

The bridge was closed on Jan. 31 after cracks were found in the beams of the truss system that holds up the 76-year-old structure.

While the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) rejected Fallin’s request for loans, it has reached out to businesses in the area to try to offer assistance in other ways, said Rick Jenkins, a public information officer for the SBA Disaster Field Operations. The SBA bases its decisions on whether there was a sudden event that causes severe damage, such as a natural disaster. Its decision cannot be appealed.

“Because the bridge was closed due to maintenance … there were no sudden physical events that caused severe damage which would cause the bridges closure. That’s why we had to deny it,” Jenkins said.

The governor requested the declaration for Cleveland and McClain counties on April 7. The closure of the James C. Nance Memorial Bridge connecting the two towns has resulted in a 45-minute one-way trip between Lexington and Purcell.

“The bridge’s closure has caused economic hardships to many businesses in Lexington and Purcell, with some reporting a 30 to 50 percent decline in sales as a result of the bridge being closed,” Fallin said.

The bridge is scheduled to reopen June 14, though both the governor’s office and Lexington City Manager Charlie McCown believe it could open earlier.

“The latest email I received, actually this morning, from (the Oklahoma Department of Transportation) said they’re still targeting June 14, however in speaking with them they’ve indicated the engineering firm is well ahead of schedule, and they’re being motivated by a $1,500 per hour incentive to get it done early,” McCown said.

Fallin Spokesman Michael McNutt said the governor sought out the federal assistance because she was trying to exhaust every avenue possible to help the communities.

Businesses have been adversely impacted by the bridge closure, which in turn had resulted in loss of sales tax revenue.

“We received our February sales tax numbers about a week ago and it showed our sales tax down about $100,000, which is about 25 percent,” Dale Bunn, city manager in Purcell, said. “It’s what we had been projecting, but we’re still disappointed.”

Bunn said the municipal hospital that had previously served both communities is also down about 25 to 40 percent, and the city is looking for ways to help them cover the shortfall until the bridge is reopened.

Though many businesses in Lexington are also reporting losses, some have reported increased revenues because people in the town do not want to drive the 10 miles to Noble to go to the grocery store.

“Our tax income is as much as it was prior to the bridge closing, which is very positive, and there were three or four business up tremendously,” McCown said, “One as much as 125-30 percent, so with those increases, our tax income hasn’t really suffered.”

Previous emergency relief measures put in place by the governor are still in effect, McNutt said, which is helping to assuage the damage.

“We’re also dealing with setting our budgets for next year, and annually that (sales tax lost could be $1 million for us if something were to happen to that bridge and it wouldn’t open,” Bunn said. “That could be a big impact for us and I imagine it could close a lot of businesses.

McCown said he and Bunn are already working to plan a celebration when the bridge reopens.

“It’s our intent to start the Purcell band on the west end of the bridge and the Lexington band on the east end of the bridge and have everyone march to the center for a ribbon cutting ceremony to declare that baby open,” McCown said.


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