By Joey Stipek
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Ray Cole wonders every day if his business will have to close. Cole is one of many Lexington and Purcell business owners struggling financially since the 76-year-old James C. Nance Memorial Bridge closed Jan. 31.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation closed the bridge over U.S. 77 and State Highway 39, linking Lexington and Purcell, due to cracks in its support system. Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency on Feb. 7 in Lexington and Purcell.
Cole helps operate Cole’s Plant Farm in Lexington with his daughter. He estimates that his business has lost $5,000 to $10,000 since his seasonal store opened in February. The once-empty shelves at his outdoor boutique are now full of flowers and plants he can barely sell to customers.
“Every day you wonder if you’re going to make it. It’s been rough. The scariest part is wondering what’s going to happen next,” Cole said.
Charlie McCown, Lexington city manager, views the bridge closure for both the city of Lexington and the city of Purcell as devastating.
“The traffic through town has been reduced dramatically, and the same thing has happened in Purcell,” McCown said. “It has been a very impactful event certainly no one would have asked for and we would like to have it fixed tomorrow, but it’s not going to.”
The bridge is scheduled to reopen on or before June 14, ODOT said.
Until the bridge reopens, Lexington is attempting a number of initiatives to support an increase in business and traffic flow. One initiative to support flagging businesses is Lexington’s annual celebration of the anniversary of the April 22, 1889, land run.
The ’89er event starts at 3 p.m. Friday on NE Second Street. McCown hopes the event will bring more tires driving on the street and shoes walking on the ground than Lexington has had recently.
“All the businesses should receive a little boost from it, I would think, and certainly that’s what we’re hoping for,” McCown said.
Economic impact: The bridge closure has business profits down 25 to 30 percent since February in Lexington, with only one business temporarily relocating to Purcell, McCown said.
When McCown talks to people in Purcell about the bridge closure, he said the amount of business decline is approximately the same in both cities. McCown has met with George Maulden, emergency management director of Cleveland County, in an effort to find financial relief for business owners.
“He’s been working feverishly in search of Small Business Administration loans and researching for private grants to help,” McCown said.
Another initiative to help increase business and traffic flow to Lexington are relaxed rules on the number of garage sales taking place in the city. Lexington previously limited garage sales to four annually but will now allow them to take place once a week for a period of one year.
Meanwhile, business owners are doing what they can to keep their businesses from closing. Mark Pearson, of Pearson Lumber Company, is delivering orders to customers who live in Purcell.
Pearson’s business was down 25 percent in March. Additionally, Pearson works as a locksmith. When people lock their cars in Purcell, Pearson said he can’t travel to Purcell “at the drop of a hat.”
“I used to be able to take care of that. It’s not feasible to drive 35 to 40 miles to unlock the vehicle,” Pearson said.
The bridge closure has forced Pearson’s business to do one weekly trip instead of several daily trips.
“I call it thinking outside the bridge,” Pearson said.
Christopher Lobaugh, Lexington Gas-N-Go manager, said the bridge closure has affected the gas station. He estimates that his store has been selling 400 to 500 fewer gallons of gasoline each day, losing a few hundred dollars daily.
“Many people have to go through Norman to go around the bridge to get gas. They stop there,” Lobaugh said.
Lobaugh noted that the decline in business isn’t limited to just gasoline sales.
“Many times when people stop in, they get gum, chips and drinks. Overall, sales are a lot less,” Lobaugh said.
Sales are up at Lexington Gas-N-Go in one area, Lobaugh said.
“We serve food. It offsets a little bit. Before, they would go across the bridge. There’s a lot of those restaurants that have almost closed down or are opened half the time,” Lobaugh said.
One restaurant across the bridge that is struggling for business is the Railhead Diner in Purcell, the first business directly across the bridge. Courtney Holmes moved from Okeechobee, Fla., to help her mother, Christy King, manage the Railhead Diner in January. King purchased the diner in September.
Holmes and King say they have lost $4,500 since February. The Railway Diner is the sole source of income for both of them.
“We’ve barely been able to pay our food and waitstaff. We have had to cut back on our waitstaff. We had seven waiters before the bridge closed,” Holmes said.
The pair has faced additional hardships due to King being a single mother and both women residing in Lexington. Holmes estimates they are both spending $140 each week in gasoline to commute from Lexington to Purcell to operate the diner and to take care of their children.
Holmes never envisioned that the once bustling diner in January would lack customers in April.
“We thought everything was going to go great, then the bridge shut down. You can’t see something like that happening,” Holmes said.
’89er day celebration: The water tower in Lexington is painted with a reminder of the significance and value that the 1889 land run has to the town. Despite the historical significance and value, McCown said city leaders originally considered postponing the ’89er event.
“Quite honestly, we did not want to just stick our head in the sand and go, ‘Well, let’s not have it because nobody will come.’ With that attitude, that’s exactly what we’ll get,” McCown said.
McCown wants everyone to know there will be festivities in Lexington. City leaders plan on advertising and spreading the word in hopes of attracting people to attend the event, which will have an amusement area for children of all ages, McCown said.
“We will have vendor booths, we will have crafts and other things available for the older folks that don’t choose to ride the rides. And there will be food vendors,” McCown said. “All the booths and amusement areas will be open until everyone chooses to go home.”
Other activities at the ’89er event include a 5K and 10K trail run, a five-mile mudder run sponsored by SUNDOG Trails, various musical acts and a car show. Business owners in Lexington are hoping for an increase in traffic due to the ’89er event.
Cole plans on having customer appreciation day at Cole’s Plant Farm during the celebration with free hot dogs and drinks.
“We can’t afford it, but we’re going to do it, anyway, just to say thank you,” Cole said.
For more information about the ’89er Day event, visit theheartofok.com/
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