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Waldo-Hancock Bridge, Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory: From aging historic bridge to world-class attraction

CHALLENGE: In early summer of 2003, MaineDOT was in the middle of a much-needed rehabilitation of the 75-year-old Waldo-Hancock Bridge on the upper mid-coast. As the bridge’s main suspension cables were unwrapped, ominous signs of cable failure began to surface, giving rise to the possibility that the historic bridge would need to be replaced. On Friday, July 11, the department received a letter from the engineering firm supervising the rehabilitation effort, indicating that they believed the bridge should immediately be closed to traffic, an action that would wreak economic havoc on this section of the mid-coast.

STRATEGY: MaineDOT believed a closure was neither necessary nor in the best interests of the region, but knew it was imperative to take weight off the bridge immediately. An urgent email went to all Maine media announcing the bridge would be closed to trucks until further notice. An early Saturday meeting at the bridge was convened to decide the best engineering solution, devise a communications plan and stage a press conference.

The communications plan Morris developed included:

• The same-day press conference, with an emphasis on the safety of the existing bridge and the accelerated timeframe to build a new one

• Ongoing media relations, including 24/7 access to Morris via cell phone and weekly press updates

• An ongoing series of bi-weekly community meetings focusing on old and new bridge issues, which were also available to the public via public cable television

• E-mail updates to an interested citizen list

• An enhanced website, including an interactive Q&A section so rumors and misunderstandings could be addressed immediately

• 24/7 access to Morris via cell phone for concerned citizens

The public involvement process around the new bridge was very challenging, as MaineDOT needed buy-in on a major new bridge design in just three months. Multiple extended meetings, workshops and constant updates to the media continued until, in November, a community workshop voted in favor of a new single-plane cable stay bridge with an observatory topping the west pylon. Ground was broken the following month to positive press, with a full contingent of the community on hand.

Morris arranged for the construction site to be open to media in a truly unique manner, allowing reporters and photographers access to the pylons and bridge deck as it was being constructed. This strategy ensured the support and gratitude of the media corps as well as stunning media coverage, such as a major news broadcast from the top of a partially completed pylon.

Most strikingly, it was the interactive section of the web site that attracted the most attention. Hundreds of comments and questions were logged onto the site from all over the country. These also acted as an informational source for reporters, who would often use the information as basis for an article.

RESULTS: Regular press events tied to construction milestones continued the ongoing media coverage, which culminated with the October 2006 Bridgewalk, attended by a crowd of 15,000 people and marked by media coverage as far south at the Boston market and highlighted by full front page coverage in the Bangor Daily News. Positive media coverage has continued, with the Observatory garnering travel features in the New York Times and Boston Chronicle, as well as local Maine media. Residents are extremely proud of the new structure, and believe it will be a major boost to tourism.

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