Helen Street bridge battle over
It’s been a long battle, but finally after 14 years, work has started on the Helen Street footbridge at South Golden Beach.
Last week residents and supporters of the bridge watched with joy as a large crane lifted the first span of the footbridge over the Capricornia Canal.
There’s still work to be done, including railings and approaches, but the main structure of the bridge is now in place.
Residents of the beachside community in the north of the Byron Shire will no doubt be relieved that their community will no longer be a divided one, and easy access to the beach no longer denied to half of them.
Resident and member of the Helen Street footbridge committee Paul Williams said the footbridge would make a positive change in the lives of the residents.
“We will now be connected with friends on both sides of the canal, and the bridge will give easier and safer access to the beach, the shop and the pre-school,” he said.
In 1996 South Golden Beach resident Maggie Brown and a handful of concerned residents decided to form The Helen Street Bridge Project after it became obvious that a footbridge promised by the Byron Shire Council was not about to materialise.
The project would prove to be very difficult, would hit so many snags, would have so many setbacks and disappointments – which was not something any of them could possibly have envisaged back then – and some who joined did indeed get discouraged and fall away in disappointment.
“I’m delighted with the news that work on the footbridge has finally started,” Maggie said, currently away from the shire and working in Sydney.
“I’ve just opened some photos and it made me feel quite emotional.
“I brought up two boys in South Golden, both into surfing, and they had to swim through the filthy canal to get to the beach.
“I hope I’ll be the first person over the bridge – it’s taken years off my life.”
When the committee first met back in 1996, its basic argument was always that the community had had an amenity taken away, that they had been promised a bridge, and so it was incumbent upon council to uphold that promise, even though there had never been anything in writing.
So they began doorknocking, getting out surveys and petitions, holding public meetings and doing fundraising, with the first ‘fantastic’ contribution of $500 for the kitty coming from former Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony.
When council finally took the project on, they gave it to a giant company who took a year to come back with a design and a quote of $1.3 million.
“I’d been overseas at the time,” recalled Maggie, “and when I came back everyone said it’s finished, and I thought, ‘oh no’, after all this work.
“We asked for three months to come up with an alternative plan, even though engineers from Byron Bay told us to give up because it would never happen.”
It was then that good luck stepped in, with a phone call about a friend of a friend who was a retired engineer and a bridge designer.
And from the moment that Tony Baggio said “I’d love to” to a request for pro bono help, everything turned around for the committee and for South Golden Beach.
For Tony Baggio is not just any old engineer and bridge designer, but “the equivalent of a five-star general of the structural engineering world” with experience all over the world as consultant engineer in a specialised field of structures of timber, concrete and steel.
In just five weeks Tony worked out how to reduce the excessively high costs and put in a new plan, and finally, two years after that realistic plan and quote, work is well and truly under way, and soon there will be a lot more people on foot around South Golden Beach.
“I just know that when people are walking around you’ve got a safer community,” Maggie said.
And not only is the community safer, it is also more cohesive.
“I find walking round so much more sociable,” said daily walker Anne Hay, “for so often you meet up with someone, and it raises your spirits.”
“Unfortunately as I’ve got older I find I need to drive to the beach to go for a walk, but once the bridge opens I’ll be walking and leaving the car at home.”
Maggie and the committee have very much appreciated Byron Shire councillors past and present who have supported a community that feels itself to be a very overlooked section of the shire, one whose only recreational facility, the beach, has been inaccessible to half of its residents.
She also paid tribute to project members including Angela Dunlop.