Despite the rain that poured over Matlacha Saturday afternoon, a crowd gathered at the Olde Fish House Marina to enjoy a fish fry and support the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project.
In addition to the fish fry, individuals had the opportunity to purchase raffle tickets, buy T-shirts that Mel Meo designed and bid on silent auction items. A cake was also provided for dessert for those who attended the benefit.
Beth Hannah, a Matlacha resident, said after an article appeared in The Eagle for the second time, she immediately emailed the organization and said she would love to volunteer her time during the event, which she did by cutting the cake. She said although she thought turning a portion of the old Matlacha Bridge into an artificial reef was a good idea, she is not to sure about the location in Charlotte Harbour.
Beth Hannah cut a cake during the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project's first benefit Saturday afternoon at the Olde Fish House Marina to raise money to turn a portion of the old Matlacha Bridge into an artificial reef.
Scarlett Petroff also attended the benefit because she thought the organization's idea to turn a portion of the old Matlacha Bridge into an artificial reef is a good one.
"It does help the fish," she said of the artificial reef.
Petroff said she enjoyed the benefit.
"The food was delicious, everyone who worked it was great," she said, adding that the contributions from the people and businesses were also nice for the silent auction.
Tina Bush of Island Floors Inc. & Interiors was very excited about how the first benefit turned out Saturday, especially because people still came out in the rain to attend.
"Today went great, so thankful to everyone," she said.
Bush said she received donations from businesses and individuals on Saturday from those who wanted to support the cause, but could not stay for the benefit.
"We are getting closer," she said of the goal. "It is definitely going to happen. The more we raise the more we can send."
Bush wanted to thank the businesses and individuals for making the first benefit a success.
"So proud of this island and these people," she said.
The idea of turning the old Matlacha Bridge into an artificial reef came to fruition the first week of July and soon turned into a non-profit organization - the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project - because Rod Mazzoli of Island Floors Inc. & Interiors wanted to preserve a piece of the island's history.
Mazzoli said he should get some answers from Charlotte County this week regarding the artificial reef being placed at the most southern end of the Novac Reef.
"Hopefully, Charlotte County will make the formal request from the West Coast Inland Waterways District," he said, so the district will help fund their project.
The goal is to have funds together by the middle of October for the project.
Mazzoli said they have received a bid for $18,000 for the first barge load and $15,000 for any additional barge load to transport portions of the old Matlacha Bridge to the Novac Reef.
"Our goal is to get at least two barges, it would make for a good-size reef," he said.
Since the idea was first introduced to the community about turning the bridge into an artificial reef, Mazzoli said he has heard nothing but positive feedback from everyone.
"Everyone we talked to is totally onboard," he said. "Haven't had one negative thing said about it."
Mike Campbell, artificial reef director for Lee County, also attended the benefit Saturday afternoon.
The process of securing an artificial reef site, he said, starts with identifying a site that would not harm the resources already there, as well as having an environmental survey done, which is then followed by obtaining permits and raising money.
Campbell said since this project was identified in July, when the bridge was pretty much already leaving the area, they were not able to obtain permits in time to have the old bridge in Lee County waters.
When an artificial reef site is within 10 miles of the coast, it is considered to be in state waters and a joint coastal permit must be obtained.
A federal permit is required, Campbell said, because of the Endangered Species Act. He said you do not want to place an artificial reef somewhere that will harm the sea life already there.
To acquire a permit takes about a year, he said.
"Time is not on our side," Campbell said of the Matlacha Bridge being placed in Lee County waters.
The Novac Reef, Campbell said is already permitted, which will allow the bridge materials to be placed there, which is more accessible for everyone.
Despite time being the biggest obstacle, Campbell said the old Matlacha Bridge becoming an artificial reef is doable.
"It's doable if they have the money," he said. "Full speed ahead."
Campbell said Lee County does not fund artificial reef deployments. He said the project is funded by grants and fund-raisers.
Since the grant process usually takes place in January with an answer provided in September, Campbell said the organization missed its chance to obtain help with grants.
The sinking of bridge material to become an artificial reef is common, he said and has been done before. He said a portion of the Edison Bridge and the Sanibel Causeway bridge are among some of the artificial reefs in Lee County waters.
The largest artificial reef on the west coast is the USS Mohawk, a retired vessel recently sunk off the Southwest Florida coast.