When it’s done, we’ll party

April 10, 2007 

State Department of Transportation officials don’t know when they’ll hold their grand opening ceremony for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge.

They don’t know how many of their boss’s creative ideas will come to pass. They’re not sure how many hundreds or thousands of people will show up to cut a piece of ribbon or walk the span.

But a Seattle events planning company has been hired to help with the details and has a maximum of $350,000 to work with.

“I expect whatever the cost is, we’ll have somebody question it,” Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said Monday. “But at the same time, we don’t want to have a stealth opening. There has to be a balance.”

After reviewing proposals from a half-dozen event-planning firms, the DOT awarded a $350,000 contract to a company called The Workshop. It handled grand openings for the Mariners’ baseball stadium and the Seattle Symphony’s concert hall and organized annual New Year’s Eve fireworks shows at the Space Needle.

The money will come out of the bridge project’s capital budget and therefore will be paid off with tolls.

Rick Singer, the bridge project’s business manager, hastened to say Monday that $350,000 is a ceiling.

“We don’t expect to pay nearly that much,” he said.

MacDonald said the new bridge “is a bit of history in the making.

“Thousands of people have worked on this bridge. Tens of thousands more have watched the progress as they’ve driven past. It’s a big deal. We need to celebrate it.”

Filiz Satir is the DOT staffer in charge of coordinating the ceremony. That means seeing to a million details, from arranging portable toilets and crowd control to souvenir programs and shuttle bus transportation.

But because much of the work remaining on the mile-long suspension bridge is weather dependent, the closest thing to a definite date anybody has been willing to give Satir is mid-July to mid-August.

“We will have a date when we have a date,” MacDonald said Monday.

“One thing I do not want to do is set a hoped-for date and then find ourselves cutting corners to meet it.”

Erin Babbo-Hunter, TNC’s public relations representative, would not address the timing question Monday, handing the query off to the DOT.

Late last year, Linea Laird, the state’s bridge project manager at the time, was using Aug. 1 as a likely completion date in her budget projections. In January, Laird pushed her estimate back to Aug. 31.

Now she’s personally hoping it turns out to be July 7, which, though extremely unlikely, would make it a lucky 7-7-07.

After several minutes of artful dodging Monday, Jeff Carpenter, the state’s current project director, reluctantly narrowed his estimate to a two-week period: “Sometime between the middle and the end of July.”

“I can’t predict the weather,” Carpenter said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Secretary MacDonald has taken a strong personal interest in the opening, at times frustrating staff members tasked with the logistics to make his creativity work.

One of MacDonald’s many ideas is to station an official stamper at either end of the bridge so people who walk all the way across can get a stamp on their program.

“They’ll be collectors’ items someday, “ he said. “They’ll be on ebay.”

One thing he definitely wants is to give everybody a chance to snip an opening ribbon.

“This is everybody’s bridge,” he said. “There’s not going to be just one ribbon cutting. If there are 600 ribbon cuttings, that’s just fine.”

Trying to organize a complicated event with no definite date has presented others who want to participate with a frustrating challenge, too.

“We’re trying to organize things so we can have a ceremonial bridge opening at a moment’s notice,” said Singer, the business manager.

Jennifer Kilmer, executive director of the Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society, said that the museum and the City of Gig Harbor have decided to participate mainly in events that will go on for several weeks. The city will have a remnant of Galloping Gertie on display in Skansie Park, and the museum is co-sponsoring a lecture by historian Richard Hobbs, who wrote a book about the Narrows bridges. The lecture date isn’t set.

The Washington State Historical Museum finessed the date problem by opening its Narrows celebration, a commemoration of all three bridges, this month. The show runs through November.

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