OUTLOOK - The SkyTrail walking bridge in the riverside community of Outlook was once a wildly popular tourist attraction.
Opening in 2004, it served for nine years as a must-see spot for many people, whether it was local residents making it a daily exercise location or visitors coming through town making a stop to take photos, see the sights, and marvel at the structure, which at one point was known as the longest pedestrian walking bridge in Canada.
And then of course, as everyone knows, the gates were shut and locked and the bridge was closed to the public in the fall of 2013 after it was determined that a number of perceived structural issues that carried a very high price tag to address could make the Town liable.
To this day, the SkyTrail has remained closed, a once-iconic tourism draw and a stinging reminder that, in the eyes and hearts of many, a significant part of Outlook's identity was being proverbially shelved and pushed to the side.
There has been much talk in the years since the locks went on about any manner of things that could be done to tackle the issues in order to reopen the bridge, but one local man has been determined to at least start a real conversation and try to get the needle moving towards progress one day.
Outlook resident Con Hammer, a surveyor with years of engineering experience, recently went to the Town to see if he could be granted access to the bridge to get an up-close look at the perceived issues. That request was granted and Hammer, along with Gary Rittinger, visited the bridge just a few weeks ago to walk it and inspect the structure.
Sitting down with this reporter last week, Hammer gave his thoughts on the original studies and findings from 2013 before the bridge was closed, sharing his belief that certain things were taken out of context and that Outlook's town council at the time stalled on making any course of action.
"On the 31st of October (2013), they did the study, and there were two engineers and two people from Council who went," explained Con. "They toured the bridge and walked over it, and what the engineers picked up was the water line had broken because the slope was shifting. Now, if you take that out of context, that happened in 2005, 2006, and 2007, but if you take it out of context and you wanted to dwell on that, you can say, 'Oh yeah, the slope is shifting and so everything is moving.' So the report came out on November 6 and it was sent to Council, and I made the motion to shut the bridge down immediately because it had to be done, as that's what the engineers said. But I was thinking about this, and if somebody came along and told us that we had something that we had to shut down and was going to cost us a lot of money, there's no way that the engineer wouldn't have been in the office the next day asking, 'Can you show us what you're going to do?' But Council did absolutely nothing at the time."
Hammer raised his eyebrows at the Town's 2022 SkyTrail report, which lists proposed expenditures related to the bridge's east side abutment at $965,500. He maintains that the embankment is in good shape and questions just what the Town is worried about.
"To do that east side was $965,500, but the part that stunk the most was $50,000 to remove trees," he said. "How can you do that? It doesn't make any sense. In January, I went down the slope and crawled through there, and I found that there's nothing wrong with the bridge. It's solid, so 'Why are they so worried about this?', I thought. The other thing that's happening with that bridge is that when it started to go down, because it was so wet, the weight of the bridge pushed everything straight down. Now, the embankment's in perfect shape, and the girders and everything - nothing's bent and everything's perfect. But everything just went straight down, and the Town admitted that later on."
Hammer says that his findings from his recent visit to the bridge, which discovered a number of cosmetic issues, only reinforced his belief that the bridge itself is stable.
"We did the survey, and the Town gave me permission to go out on the bridge," he said. "I couldn't take pictures from the bridge, but I took a picture from the shelter, and that picture looks exactly the same as one that you took and ran in the paper in 2013. The bridge has not moved, aside from maybe being a little lower. So we're walking on the bridge, and there was a damaged area with boards missing, and I found out afterward that there was actually a fire on there that somebody started! Boards are gone, and it's all open, so people think they need to throw the boards down into the river."
When asked point blank, Con believes there's nothing wrong with the bridge. Aside from some dropping due to the ground shifting, he maintains that the actual structure hasn't changed in more than a decade.
"There's nothing wrong with this bridge," he said. "We looked at all the beams along the side, and nothing. That bridge, it hasn't changed in the last 14-15 years other than maybe it's dropped a little more. So we were talking (Gary Rittinger and I), and we had questions. We were told that there's a problem with this bridge, and we can't say it's okay, so what are we going to do? Well, we know that the slope is going to be a problem, and the east abutment is moving because of the slope. The west abutment is solid, but they found movement of an inch and a half. When you go to the bottom, everything down there had to do with plates shifting. Wright Construction actually got a hold of us one time and said, 'We could fix everything on that bridge!' So anyway, now you've got a slope that's stable, a structure that's stable, another abutment that's stable, so what's going on here?"
Hammer says that he believes there is fault that lays with Outlook's town council and engineers who were asked for their opinion on the bridge. He also maintains that Associated Engineering may have wanted the Town to get a second opinion in order for the firm to avoid any liability.
"The Council and the engineers may have screwed up a little bit," he said. "When they came out with these prices, they made it so bad that anybody who'd look at it would say, 'This is nuts!' There's nothing wrong with this bridge, but they can't tell you because if they do, they're liable! Now, Council's trying to see if they can get a $10-12 million grant to fix up the bridge that isn't broke...? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this has nothing to do with the money at all. Associated (Engineering) didn't want any money, they were trying to tell the councillors to get a second opinion on all of this and to get them off the hook!"
Instead, Hammer believes that the town council should proceed with passing a motion to open the bridge, issuing a press release stating that it's been inspected and determined that the east abutment is stable, and following cosmetic damage to the bridge being repaired and a walkway built at an estimated price tag of $5000, a grand reopening held in the community. Following that, hold annual inspections of the bridge so that it can be monitored year-to-year.
Con says he's done all he can to hopefully make a reopening of the bridge become reality some day.
"This was an opinion of the engineers, not a decision - it was the Town who decided to close the bridge," he said. "The thing is, I'm tired of fighting with everyone on this. A motion from Council to open it is all they need. They've got all the data and all the facts. They closed it, they can open it. Let's get to work here."
Speaking to this reporter on the Town's side of things, Chief Administrative Officer Kevin Trew detailed how the request from Con came to fruition and where the SkyTrail issues fall with some of the community's decision makers.
"Con came in last fall and presented me with some drawings of what he felt was happening with the SkyTrail," recalled Trew. "He was questioning the decision from about 10 years ago, and he was very up front about it; he never thought it was a good idea to close the bridge, which of course is fine. We've had a lot of conversation, not necessarily in Council meetings, but we've had conversations amongst Council and myself when we're talking about the strategic plan and other things, and we've definitely been talking about the SkyTrail bridge. From an outsider perspective, coming into Outlook, I'm personally very disappointed that the bridge isn't open. I definitely saw the potential of it coming into Outlook. I had a lot of conversation with different members of Council and trying to gain a better understanding of why it was closed and the decisions that were made at the time."
A January 2022 document that's available on the Town of Outlook website shows updated costs related to the rehabilitation of the bridge. It lists a total project cost of $13,660,000 to address everything that's believed to be affecting the structure. As well, the Associated Engineering report states that bi-annual inspections would theoretically cost between $6000-$12,000.
Many grants have been explored for the bridge, including ones related to the Trans Canada Trail such as the $55 million in funding over five years that was announced by the federal government. However, it was learned by this reporter in January of this year that the SkyTrail was removed from the Trail network in 2017, unbeknownst to many locals.
Trew himself believes that there is indeed a path to seeing SkyTrail open again, and maintains that the cost figures related to the 2022 report needed to be updated in order for the Town to apply for any possible grants that might apply to the bridge.
"There's a path to get to that trail again, and I'm very confident in that," he said. "Now, I have to be careful because I do represent the Town of Outlook and I do represent Council, and I have to be up front: I'm not saying that all of Council feels that there's a path, as we've never voted on anything or had a conversation like that. In our conversations last fall, Mr. Hammer was very animated and concerned about the decision, and also that this council asked Associated Engineering for a cost update. The reason why we asked for a cost update was because the estimated costs at that time were almost nine years old. We're not admitting that those are reasonable costs or anything, but if we went to apply for a grant, we would need to have updated figures."
Trew says that in 2013, only one opinion was sought by the Town on the bridge, and that one opinion was adhered to by the council at that time. He says that the current council has to respect that decision to a certain point, but he also says that Hammer's heart is in the right place because Trew believes that the SkyTrail might be more connected to the town than some other people may believe.
"At the very heart of everything, Con has his heart in a great spot," he said. "I think it all started there. I think it started with us talking about the bridge again, you started writing about the bridge again, and I can't speak to what's happened over the last ten years, but I truly feel that the SkyTrail is the heart of this community. I thought it when I started here, and our work with the museum is directly connected to it. That's why I gave my efforts to the museum, because there's a path - a literal path to that museum and downtown Outlook. It's a long road to get there, but I see it and I see a different way to try and get to the reopening of the SkyTrail. I don't make those decisions at this desk, and I never do. I make recommendations to Council, and honestly, my recommendation is not to open it and that we need more work done."
Trew says the Town was perfectly fine with allowing Hammer and Rittinger have access to the bridge to assess it and see what they could find. He also thinks that some people might have a disconnection when it comes to what people who work for the town want in the riverside community, as Trew believes most people want to see SkyTrail open again one day.
"Council agreed to Con doing this," he said. "I can't speak for Council, but I think generally, everybody in this community wants to see SkyTrail open again. I think pitting people against each other is really unfair, not that anyone has, but we have to be careful not to pit people against each other because, ultimately, everybody sees the benefit of having the SkyTrail open. To me, there are tourism dollars at stake that could be really expanded. But what I think is more important is that heart and pride in the community. I honestly feel that THAT is a key ingredient to Outlook, and I challenge anyone to argue that. I know how people talk about it, and it's a little bit of shame, but also a little bit of positivity. I see it and Council sees it, so we have to be respectful of each other and understand that."
Trew says it's important to note that Hammer isn't a certified engineer, so his findings could produce more questions. That said, he thinks that Con's findings produced some good questions that decision makers may need to consider going forward.
"His expertise may be questioned by many," he said. "He's not an engineer, and he knows that; he's a surveyor. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But one of the things that I thought was a really good part of his comments and questions is that even in the initial report that's still on our website from 2013/14 is that there really was no actual measuring done. There was visual observation, but no 'This is where this is, and this is where that is, and how do we track that over time?' That wasn't done. Interestingly, a part of that report and recommendation was that the Town of Outlook actually do some annual work and some benchmarking and track it over time. So Council closed the bridge and didn't put any of this in any budget. We can't go back in time - that's just what happened."
Although there was a clash of views on the subject between Hammer and the Town, ultimately the data that came out of Hammer and Rittinger's visit may indeed start to forge a long and twisting path that could lead to SkyTrail reopening down the road.
"So Mr. Hammer and Mr. Rittinger went out and actually shot some measurements, which is great and fantastic, but we don't have anything to measure that against," said Kevin. "The understanding that Council had was that we're going to do this again in a few months. Whether the science would prove anything, I don't know, but at least we would have that data over time. So now, Mr. Hammer presented his findings to the Mayor and myself, and he said, 'It's not moving', and I said, 'Based on what?' I'm not a science guy, but in this case, we have to have some scientific proof. What we can do is find a path for myself and others who want to open that bridge. This is a part of that path, and it might open the door to conversations. It'll probably involve engineers, but maybe it'll also get to a point where we can start having good, honest conversations with the public. Even the engineers are saying, 'Let's have that conversation with the public.' And I get it - money talks and money's huge, right? There are numbers out there; $6-10 million dollars. Yeah, THAT path is this much, but maybe there's another path we can take on this. Maybe there's a conversation where we start doing the monitoring annually. That's still a long road, but let's start, right? Maybe that's a 2024 budget thing, who knows? Of course, it all comes down to risk."
Trew says he can't deny any of the new findings that have come forward, maintaining that all of the data could serve as a baseline for the Town to propel the issue forward. Also being talked about are possible meetings in the future regarding the bridge, but Trew noted that such meetings need to have solid talking points and centerpiece subjects because not only are town staff being paid to attend such meetings, but leaving such events with productive results is more helpful than simply being a platform for angry residents to throw verbal insults at elected officials and staff.
"I won't deny the things that Con has found, and I believe in it, and I think it's a good baseline and something we can start with, and we'll go from there," Kevin said. "It's one of my personal goals that the SkyTrail reopen someday. I feel that it's important to people. Now, I don't think it's first on anyone's list of things that need to be done, but it's still on the list. I can't speak for Council, but I believe that it will be, and I believe the work that Con and Gary have done will help get us there."
Although this reporter can certainly try, perhaps American writer Margaret J. Wheatley sums it up best when it comes to this particular subject:
"There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about."