A wake up call on the proposed Cortez Bridge

Cortez bridge looking east
The Cortez Bridge will be replaced by either a 35-foot drawbridge or a 65-foot fixed-span. - Cindy Lane | Sun

By Dr. Mary Fulford Green

It is believed that if you do not know your history, you are apt to repeat it. I am one who is looking forward to the same outcome for the new Cortez Bridge as in 1995 – no 65-foot, high-rise bridge from Cortez to Anna Maria Island. Hopefully, learning the history will make this come true. So here goes with the history lesson.

Picture this: It is 1994. The Florida Department of Transportation announces a public hearing on the proposed new bridge to the Island. The hearing is scheduled for Manatee Community College (no State College of Florida). However, the weather forecast is for severe thunderstorms, and the county insists “no traveling that night.”

Two members of the Cortez Village Historical Society, Richard Culbreath and Harry Howey, ignore the warning and attend the meeting. They report back to the Society that the plan is to build a 65-foot bridge from Cortez to the Island. It would close 22 businesses and four streets into this little village. As Richard looks at the map, he realizes that his mother would look out onto a bank of dirt as her 123rd Street Court would be closed. This could not be happening. At the next CVHS meeting, it was decided to contact the FDOT. We would tell them that we were in the process of getting Cortez listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. FDOT responded with a request that it be sent a map.

CVHS had received a $1,000 grant from the Florida Department of Historic Resources and had paid this to a Bradenton consultant who had identified 50 structures that were eligible for inclusion. This map with a few more houses listed was in the mail. The new fire station on Cortez Road had just been opened so CVHS requested that the FDOT schedule a public hearing on the new bridge. It was to be held at the station.

In the meantime, the Florida Department of Historic Resources had approved an additional $3,000 to fund the application to the National Register. Another consultant was hired and with an additional $1,800 paid out the total number of structures was increased to 97.

The bridge hearing

The date was set for the public hearing. That day, Harry Howey noticed that the Bradenton Beach City Council was meeting in the afternoon. He rushed across the bridge and invited the group to attend the meeting on the new bridge. The council members responded with, “What bridge?” The group attended and heard the plans for the 65-foot bridge. It would have taken many feet off of Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach. Mayor Katie (Pierola) and the council members were added to the opposition to the FDOT plan.

The CVHS representative went to Tallahassee and was told that the $3,000 would be granted but that the application was not properly prepared. Her response had always been, “If you can design a form, I can fill it in.” With help from a very capable state consultant, the application was submitted and defended before the state committee in Tallahassee. That committee was chaired by Dr. Janet Matthews from Sarasota. She was the author of the book “Edge of Wilderness.” She is now on the faculty at the University of Florida.

Historic district

On March 16, 1995, Cortez, with its 97 historic structures, was listed as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Please note that March 16 is the birthday of William Thomas Fulford, the 20-year-old man who bought the first tract of land in Hunters Point, now called Cortez (he is my grandpa).

The 65-foot bridge that would have devastated Cortez would not be built. Federal funds cannot be used to negatively impact a Historic District. The current bridge was then constructed.

Now, 23 years later, the FD0T is favoring another 65-foot bridge to be built 200 feet north of the present one. So here we go again. This one would close five streets into the south side of the village.

What would be the impact on the village and on Manatee County? Consider the impact on the fishing industry if you like eating fresh fish. No, this industry is not the number one in the county. So forget the millions of dollars in lost income from the fish that are wholesaled to other places.

Just consider the impact on Manatee County’s number one industry – tourism! It is estimated that as many as 3,000 to 4,000 people come into Cortez every day to buy either fresh fish or cooked seafood. They visit the 12 establishments located in the village.

The 65-foot bridge or the 37-foot bridge? Which is the better choice for Cortez, Anna Maria Island and Manatee County? You can guess my answer. What is yours? I am voicing mine to FDOT. Maybe we should also contact our local, state and federal political representatives. This is a wakeup call for all to become involved.