PENDER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - The Surf City Swing Bridge holds a special place in the hearts of many Surf City residents, but now just one artist holds the remaining pieces which he will soon turn into artwork for sale.
Community reaction ranges from celebrating the work of the artist to preserve the bridge to concern about why only one person was chosen to own the remaining pieces of the iconic structure.
Artist Jeff Wenzel, owner of Above Topsail, obtained 553 pieces of the Surf City Swing Bridge from construction company Balfour Beatty, which was contracted by the North Carolina Department of Transportation to build the new bridge and dispose of the old one.
WECT reached out to Wenzel for an interview for this story. Wenzel said he did not have time this week to meet in person because he was busy working on the art, but he was able to answer several questions over the phone.
Wenzel said he obtained the 553 pieces of the Surf City bridge in a "private compensation," but declined to share the financial specifics.
“We chose Jeff (Wenzel) because of being a local, and the work he has done for [Balfour Beatty] documenting the new construction,” said Jay Boyd, Southeast Operations Manager for Balfour Beatty Infrastructure, in a promotional video posted on Wenzel’s website.
The swing bridge became the property of Balfour Beatty in August 2016 after its construction contract with the NCDOT was signed. This is in accordance with the NCDOT Standard Specifications for Roads and Structures, according to an NCDOT spokesperson.
“Recycling it was the safest and most cost-effective option. When our team learned there was interest in pieces of the bridge, they thought it would be nice to find a way to make some available. Although it required work beyond the company’s contractual obligation, they came up with the idea for an artist to incorporate some pieces into artwork,” said Matt Averitt, a spokesperson for Balfour Beatty in a statement to WECT on Tuesday.
"The team reached out to the artist they worked with throughout the project and he expressed interest. The company has no involvement in the creation or sale of the artwork, and is sorry that not everyone is satisfied with the effort," Averitt added.
Wenzel’s final products that are available for purchase include a 24x36″ canvas for $675, and a 12x16″ plaque or a $185. There are approximately twice as many plaques that will be created as canvases, which Wenzel said was intentional to make the art more affordable.
The canvas' image is a photo taken on Dec 4, 2018, the day the new bridge opened and the last sunrise of the swing bridge. The plaque features a laser engraving of the same sight.
"I worked with some local business in the area and I think we've come up with a couple great products that people will enjoy and be proud to display on their wall," said Wenzel in a promotional video.
Pre-ordering for the art began on Friday, Jan. 25. The art production will begin in early February, with the pre-orders fulfilled between March and the end of April, according to Wenzel's website.
So far, Wenzel said he has pre-sold a little more than half of the Surf City Swing Bridge art pieces.
"I am excited that in about a couple of months, there will be pieces of the swing bridge that will be displayed and hung in local businesses and homes throughout Surf City that will allow people to share memories of the Surf City Swing Bridge," Wenzel said over the phone.
In a website FAQ, Wenzel said he realizes some people might be upset that only he was allowed to sell the bridge pieces.
“I realize some people are upset about how this has been implemented and some of my competitors are envious of my position. The Surf City Swing Bridge is tied to so many memories for many who live in our community and visitors. That is why I am proud to be part in being able to make a limited quantity of pieces available,” Wenzel wrote.
Wenzel plans to donate a portion of the sales' profits to the Historical Society of Topsail Island, which is “dedicated to the collection, preservation and promotion of the history of the Greater Topsail Island area,” according to the organization’s website.
On Tuesday, the artist said he has not yet decided what percentage of the profits to donate.
Edna Smith, President of the Historical Society of Topsail Island, declined an interview but said she was grateful for Wenzel's donation, which also includes a five-foot beam of the Swing Bridge in the Missiles and More Museum.
Wenzel said he feels a personal, emotional tie to the bridge.
“My kids love the swing bridge. One of the memories that my kids have of the swing bridge is actually playing underneath of it,” Wenzel said in the promotional video. “They would play in that area and watch boats go by from underneath the swing bridge, and even be there when the bridge turned right above us.”
The rest of the swing bridge not obtained by Wenzel was purchased by AIC Recycling in Leland.
During a phone interview Tuesday, AIC owner Matt Abernathy said it is being cut up and sold to steel mills that will melt it down and reuse it in construction projects.
According to Abernathy, the contractor specifically asked him to not sell any of the bridge to the general public, which is also the owner’s policy.
Jason Spencer, a Surf City resident, is happy that a local artist is preserving the well-known swing bridge.
“I’m an artist myself, and I think that’s really cool. I like when art and business come together, and people have the opportunity to profit from something like that. Why not?”
Spencer, like many other residents, expressed an interest in taking home a piece of the old bridge before it was hauled away.
“When they were taking the bridge down, I thought it would be really nice to have a piece of that history, and I kind of floated around and looked for some of the workers to talk to to see if could get just a little piece of it,” said Spencer. “I would like to have had a piece of that history.”