SURF CITY — When local photographer Jeff Wenzel began selling pieces of the iconic, recently demolished Topsail Island swing bridge last week, many took to social media. Some Surf City-area residents supported the idea, while others challenged the idea that one business was given sole rights to sell the pieces at prices some viewed as too high.
The photographer has mounted old scraps on pieces of art and is selling two variations. One piece is an engraved wall plaque with a piece of the bridge, sold at $175. The other is a large canvas photograph – an aerial view of the bridge shot in December during its last morning of operations – with a scrap attached at the bottom of the print, sold at $675.
“The bridge paraphernalia is certainly controversial,” Shaka Taco owner and life-long Surf City resident Cody Leutgens said.
“A connection with the historic structure”
After plans to repurpose Topsail Island’s swing bridge fell through last year, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure decided to recycle the iconic structure for scrap. Since, there has been numerous requests by Surf City residents and visitors to the island to obtain a piece of the bridge, which has served as their gateway to Topsail Island since 1955.
As part of their contract with the NCDOT to build the island’s new $54 million high-rise bridge, Balfour Beatty was required to remove and safely dispose of the swing bridge, according to the company’s regional operations manager, Jay Boyd.
“It was clear that the public had a connection with the historic structure,” Boyd said in a video posted on Wenzel’s website. “After finding out the structure would be recycled, most of the public we spoke to wanted to know if they could have a piece of the structure as a remembrance,” Boyd said.
Wenzel, who said he had been hired by Balfour Beatty to take drone photographs of the island’s new bridge, said he was given 553 pieces of the bridge because of his past work with the company and his platform as an artist.
“Balfour Beatty is a construction company,” Wenzel said Monday. “They build bridges, they are not in the business of selling pieces of bridges. Their local office is not staffed to deal with the public, with multiple artists. Their choice was to deal with me, as a single person to offer pieces to the public.”
Some, however, question the limited availability – Wenzel said he has already sold over half the pieces he has on hand – and believe the artist’s prices are too high.
“I would’ve loved to been able to get a chunk of it,” Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin said. “I wanted to give each one of my grandkids a piece of that bridge.”
At $175 per plaque, he said this that is no longer viable. Regardless, he said it was the company’s rightful decision to make.
“I can see [Balfour Beatty’s] point, not wanting to worry with a bunch of people wanting a piece of that bridge. It belonged to them, that was their decision. That’s their right,” Medlin said. “I can understand, though, the way people feel.”
For Leutgens, who owns a restaurant and surf school on Topsail Island, he questions why the town didn’t raise donations to preserve the bridge in a place like Soundside Park. He also argued that for those with deep roots to the island, the photographer’s work is more a prop than anything else.
“In my opinion, for someone to sell artifacts and relics – bridge or whatever – it’s a lot like selling sea glass or a fine shark’s tooth. You gotta put your hands on it, uncover it, be a part of it for it to be real, sacred, or true,” Leutgens said.
“Sure, folks might buy it, but that’s just a prop in a rental home, not history or the ‘badump badump badump’ people who love this island, preserve it, or want to stay connected with our sands and sea oats would compete to own,” Leutgens said, referring to the sound a car made when it drove over the swing bridge.
Hampstead resident Pat Jackson, on the other hand, believed it was Wenzel’s right to sell the pieces – an opportunity given to him by Balfour Beatty – at prices he determined.
“I feel like, as consumers, we have the choice of how we want to spend our money,” Jackson said. “If I decide to eat macaroni-and-cheese this week because I want a piece of Jeff’s work, then that’s what I’m going to do. I have the choice, I live in America, that’s why I live here.”
Although she said the majority of social media responses have been in support of Wenzel, she said the criticism of high pricing and limited availability is unfair: he was simply taking a free market opportunity.
“I don’t think he’s at fault for accepting the responsibility of these pieces,” Jackson said. “I just think he was given a good opportunity, and he took advantage of it, as he should as a businessman.”
Wenzel, a Holly Ridge resident, said he also understood the emotional aspect of people’s criticisms – and that some can’t afford his pieces – but he urged everyone to consider the limited supply he had on hand.
“People are complaining about the price, but that’s not really the root cause – complaints shouldn’t be about the price. It’s a limited quantity, that’s the ultimate issue,” Wenzel said. “It doesn’t matter if I sold pieces for $5 or $5,000. Ultimately, I still had only 553 pieces available to the public.”
He added that Balfour Beatty was not obligated, under its contract with the NCDOT, to make any pieces available, and by doing so it slowed down their project timeline and “cost them a considerable amount” of labor to cut scraps into smaller pieces.
He said some of the criticisms have come from another root issue: people’s sense of entitlement for property that is not their own.
“For people who have lived on the island, certainly the bridge is a special place in their heart, but paying taxes doesn’t mean you actually own or are entitled to a piece of property,” Wenzel said. “It’s not Surf City’s fault – they don’t own it. It was the NCDOT’s, and every person in North Carolina paid taxes for it.”
He said this way of thinking shows an emotional disconnect people have over something that makes them feel nostalgic – “that they’re entitled to something when they’re not.”
“But I understand the emotional attachment,” Wenzel said.
Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@localvoicemedia.com