Officials skeptical of bridge demolition

BENWOOD – Councilman John Kazemka asked City Attorney Eric Gordon what to expect if Bellaire Toll Bridge owner Lee Chaklos can never afford to demolish the structure, which closed to traffic in the early 1990s.

“The same thing that has happened for the past 25 years,” Gordon responded during the Tuesday council meeting. “If he doesn’t have the ability to tear it down, someone else will have to get involved.”

“I don’t think you’ll see that guy tear that bridge down. I really don’t,” Councilman Chuck Terry added regarding Chaklos.

During the meeting, Gordon told council members about the trip he recently took to Columbus, Ohio, with Mayor Ed Kuca, Police Chief Frank Longwell and attorney Dan Guida. Gordon said what was supposed to be a “mediation hearing” turned into much more. U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley set a criminal contempt hearing for Chaklos after learning Chaklos apparently failed to disclose that there are $1.5 million worth of liens against the bridge. The criminal hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Sept. 10 in Columbus.

Given the long history of failed efforts to demolish the structure – and repeated complaints of pieces of rusting metal from the span falling onto city streets – Kazemka wondered what would happen next.

“This thing could be tied up until the steel girders fail. I am concerned about the part that is over top of our city,” he said.

Gordon emphasized that Chaklos already has been ordered to tear down the bridge or face being fined $1,000 per day.

“You cannot get blood out of a turnip,” Gordon said.

Liens against the bridge totaling $1.5 million have been filed by groups who had invested in the bridge with Chaklos, hoping to make a profit from the sale of the scrap metal. However, insurance companies were reluctant to grant Chaklos a $1 million bond to start demolition, which Benwood officials demanded because they did not want to be left with a portion of the structure hanging over the city if he could not complete the project.

Following the meeting, Kuca said he shared the skepticism of Terry and Kazemka.

“I believe, eventually, the federal and state government are going to have to get involved. This has become a public hazard that has got to be abated,” Kuca said.

In 2005, former Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney wanted to use federal money to demolish the structure. However, when then-Ohio Democratic Congressman Ted Strickland accused Ney of trying give taxpayers’ money to then-bridge owner Roger Barack to relieve Barack of his obligation to tear it down, Ney abandoned the plan.