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Business owners hope reopened Manayunk Bridge brings new customers

The Manayunk Bridge dominates the view from the outdoor deck behind Gaily's Crazy Cow Cafe. The nearly 100-year-old bridge reopened Friday as a pedestrian and bicycle throughway connecting Lower Merion and Philadelphia.

The Manayunk Bridge dominates the view from the outdoor deck behind Gaily's Crazy Cow Cafe.

The nearly 100-year-old bridge reopened Friday as a pedestrian and bicycle throughway connecting Lower Merion and Philadelphia.

"I'm hoping they'll see me from the bridge and come down here," said Gaily Moore, the owner of the restaurant on Manayunk's Main Street.

She is among business owners looking to the bridge to bring new customers. The proximity of Main Street shopping to the bridge has some envisioning Manayunk as the go-to shopping and eating destination for Lower Merion's Bala Cynwyd community.

"The position is to make Main Street their main street," said Kay Sykora, director of Destination Schuylkill River, a project of the Manayunk Development Corporation.

It took four years of fund-raising, a year of construction, and $5.76 million to make the 3,168-foot bridge an addition to the Schuylkill River Trail. That trail is itself a portion of the Circuit, a 300-mile network that could become an unbroken trail web throughout the region.

"Instead of having all those cars going to the expressway, the idea is this trail allows people within a half-mile access to the train," said Chris Leswing, assistant director for building and planning in Lower Merion.

Trails in the Philadelphia region are not just about health and recreation, according to advocates, business leaders, and government officials, they are economic assets.

"It's as important as a new stadium or a new highway," said Sarah Clark Stuart, acting director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Trails have proven to be economic drivers in the region, said John Boyle, research director for the Bicycle Coalition. A 2009 study - the most recent data - found the Schuylkill River Trail's 800,000 annual users generated $7.2 million through spending on items ranging from clothes to food. The Delaware and Lehigh Trail, which runs through Bucks County, Allentown, and Jim Thorpe to White Haven, generates $19 million a year, he said.

"Things like bridges, they are more expensive than other sections of trails, but when they fill the gap they have an exponential value," Boyle said.

Trails are considered such assets that they are being incorporated into new developments.

O'Neill Properties, for example, is nearing completion on the first phase of 593 apartments on Lower Merion's waterfront. The $130 million development will include an expansion for the Cynwyd Heritage Trail - part of that is $6 million in work on the Pencoyd Bridge - about a mile downstream of the Manayunk Bridge to make it pedestrian friendly.

The Manayunk Bridge also connects to the Cynwyd trail in Lower Merion and, "creates more opportunities for commerce," said Kevin Kyle, O'Neill Properties vice president.

The bridge's stately arches span the Schuylkill, Interstate 76, and freight railroad tracks, and offer a route from Montgomery County into Philadelphia that circumvents busy intersections.

Jamie Blood, a manager at Main Street Music, says the bridge's users could match her store's demographic, but she is concerned that, for the time being, there is no direct connection between the bridge and Main Street.

"That's so lame," she said. "I think they really should have direct access to Main Street."

Manayunk's Main Street is largely populated by locally owned businesses. Hip bars and restaurants rub shoulders with quirky labors of love like Millay Vintage, a clothing store inspired by the owner's passion for the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the music store, which still stocks shelves with vinyl.

"I think they're [Manayunk community and business leaders] doing a really good job of curating a crowd that likes to support local businesses and local food," said Mary Spears, Millay's owner.

The bridge deposits in Manayunk at Dupont and High Streets, and visitors must walk side streets to Main Street. There are hopes to continue the trail on the unused rail bed to the Ivy Ridge Station, which may offer an easier path to Main Street, Clark Stuart said. The bridge also lacks lights for now, so will not be open after dark. Lights and a trail continuation require money, organizers said.

On its opening day Friday, though, people were already celebrating new access to their favorite restaurants. Charles Brant, of Jeffersonville, clad in a neon yellow jacket and helmet, biked across the bridge Friday and talked about one of his favorite spots, Mama's Pizzeria.

"Now I can go over to Lower Merion," he said. "I've got to tell you this: One of the best cheesesteak places is over there on Belmont Avenue."