The final 250 tons of the old Matlacha Bridge, which included the "Matlacha Pass" and "1964" end caps, were dropped at the Novak Reef site Monday, Jan. 14.
"I feel really good," said Rod Mazzoli, Matlacha Bridge Reef Project president. "I feel great about it, I hope that the local community enjoys it."
The first 250 tons of the bridge were delivered to the artificial reef site Dec. 28.
The last barge full of the old Matlacha Bridge was shipped out on Monday, Jan. 14 completing the portion of the artificial reef at the Novak Reef.
The efforts to save a portion of the Matlacha Bridge blossomed the first week of July when Mazzoli wanted to preserve a piece of history for individuals to enjoy as an artificial reef.
Once the idea formed, Mazzoli began having meetings with the county and bridge builder to see if the idea was doable.
With a lot of hard work, dedication and many fund-raisers, six months later the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project delivered 500 tons of the old Matlacha Bridge to Novak Reef.
The artificial reef is located three miles west of Gasparilla Pass, which is located on the north end of Gasparilla Island. Mazzoli said it is about 21 miles from the Matlacha Bridge to the Novak Reef site and about 15 miles from Bokeelia and Pineland.
The Novak Reef is named after Rick Novak, a Charlotte County sea grant agent who passed away in 2004. He died while tagging blue fin tuna off of the South Carolina coast.
Initially Mazzoli said they wanted to start from scratch and obtain their own permit for a reef site.
"After a month of meetings between the state, county and federal (personnel), we determined that was impossible to do under the short window of opportunity," he said. "That is when we shifted gears and tried to use one of the existing permits that Lee County had."
Unfortunately that led to another closed door, as all of the artificial reefs in Lee County were located 30 miles or more off shore. Mazzoli was determined to find a site that was in the harbor and close enough to shore, so a wide variety of people could enjoy the artificial reef.
"Lee County put us in touch with Roger DeBruler, knowing that he had an open permit just beyond the border of the two counties," Mazzoli said. "He said he would be happy to give us the southern portion of the permitted area (Novak Reef) and also allow us to rename it to Matlacha Bridge Reef."
He said that DeBruler indicated that after the bridge material was dumped at the site, he was going to send one of the dive clubs down to the Matlacha Bridge Reef to position the corner stones so they could be seen on the reef.
"That is yet to come," Mazzoli said Friday afternoon.
Fund-raising efforts are also still in the works to repay an "angel" who lent them money to pay for the second barge load.
That event will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the Tarpon Lodge. The cocktail hour, which starts at 6 p.m., is a cash bar. A four-course meal will be served at 7 p.m. Tickets are $100 per person, and includes dinner and one raffle ticket, and $175 per couple, which includes dinner for two and two raffle tickets.
The raffle ticket items, which amounts to nearly $10,000 in price, includes vacation getaways, framed original photos of the old Matlacha Bridge, framed artwork and various raffle baskets.
In addition, Tina Bush, a member of the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project, said each individual who attend the dinner will receive a keepsake of the old bridge.
Those interested in attending are encouraged to call 239-244-4434 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bush said there are a limited number of tickets available for the event.
In addition, the organization still has matted and framed Mel Meo prints available, which became the logo of the organization. Each framed picture will have Meo's signature, along with an old piece of the Matlacha Bridge and the history of the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project for $100.
Bush said the organization's efforts will continue as they promote the reef, the Pine Island area, as well as share information about the artificial reef and what its benefits are for the community.
Mazzoli wants to thank everyone who has supported, contributed and volunteered for the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project, as well as the bridge builder and Charlotte County for their cooperation. He said he also wants to thank Sarah Clarke and the Lee County Department of Transportation, as well as Lee County Commissioners for their support during the last obstacles that surfaced.
He said John Mills, a life-long Fort Myers resident and local fisherman, donated his legal help pro bono to the Matlacha Reef effort.
"Without his continued help, the reef would not have happened," Mazzoli said.
A special thank you is also extended to Dan and Dane Kelly of the Kelly Brothers, for being really nice and easy to work with, Mazzoli said. Kelly Brothers was the barge company the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project used to transport the material to the artificial reef site.
Both Bush and Mazzoli also want to thank Meo for her renditions and paintings, as well as the Pine Island Elementary school students for their really cool artwork of the bridge and the reef.
"I am so proud of the entire community in making this idea become a reality," Bush said. "I look forward to the benefits this reef will give the community for decades to come."
Mazzoli hopes that in the future, Lee County will set aside funds for projects like the Matlacha Bridge Reef Project. He said it would be nice for them to set aside some money for some near shore reefs, or near shore inshore reefs.
"These types of reefs close to shore can be used by almost everyone, even kayakers can go to these reefs," Mazzoli said.