Raffle winner waxes nostalgia, claims clasp to change

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

NAPLES — The local woman who won the raffle to be sitting in the first vehicle that drove across the new bridge, admits her journey has been much longer than that prestigious but short-lived ride across the bridge.

“I have lived in Naples my whole life and when the whole topic of a ‘new bridge’ first came up — I’m not going to lie, I was adamantly opposed,” Connie Eldridge said, adding an exclamation mark to the end of her Tuesday night text message.

“I was one of the Save the Bridge committee members. Even my kids and their friends (would be) out there one Saturday morning with signs that read, ‘Honk to save the bridge’ and ‘If it ain’t got that swing, then it don’t mean a thing.’ ” she said.

“Change is difficult, but change is necessary,” Eldridge said.

For the past month or more, raffle tickets have been sold at $5 each. Two names would be drawn — one for the person who would be in the last car to drive over the old bridge and another for the individual who would occupy the leading vehicle in a parade across the newly unveiled Bay of Naples Bridge. The raffle was held as a fundraiser for the Town of Naples’ portion of construction costs, which are estimated to be around $405,000.

On Friday, before Causeway Renovation Committee Member Bob Neault revealed the raffle winners, he said, “The citizens are ready to drive over solid pavement again, and put behind us the washboard dirt roads.”

Carmen Caron was announced as the winner who would sit in the last car to cross over the 1954 bridge. Then, Eldridge heard her name called.

“When I found out I won the raffle to the first ‘official’ car to drive over the new bridge, at first I didn’t believe it. Then reality sank in, and I was so excited,” she said.

“This would not mean as much to a lot of people. But, to me, it was one of the best things that has happened to me in a long time,” Eldridge said.

Her crusades to save the old bridge were built upon childhood memories.

“I remember when I was a kid, we would watch the clock and ride our bikes down to the swing bridge as fast as we could to try to jump on and ride the bridge while Buddy Babb opened it for the boats to go through. I also remember when we used to be allowed to jump off the bridge,” she recalled.

“These days, there are too many boats and way too much traffic for that to be safe. Now as I drive over this new bridge and look down where the old bridge is (or was), I think, ‘Wow, I wanted to save that?’ ”

“This new bridge is amazing, and I am so proud because of this town,” she said.

“It bothers me when you hear people complain about the changes because there are so many groups and committees that they could have been part of to help make decisions — maybe not about the actual bridge design itself, but still many other things from railings to light poles to trash cans to banners,” she said.

“Thankfully, there is a lot more positive talk around town than negative. I believe it’s not too late to get involved. We still have so much more to do, and it continues to be exciting,” Eldridge concluded.

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