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Ramps smooth wheelchair ride

A word to a friend and, voila, Constance Zimmerman's wish comes true: 15 sidewalk ramps now let her zip around her neighborhood.

By KAREN LACHENAUER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- Constance Zimmerman has been a competitive swimmer and driven 18-wheelers, but in recent years she's seen osteoporosis and surgery limit her ability to move around.

Still, to say that Zimmerman, 79, has been sidelined by her ailments would not be accurate. She works out mornings at a wellness center and uses her motorized wheelchair to take her sheep dog Cassie out for loping runs around Beacon Groves.

Until recently, Zimmerman had to be careful crossing the streets in her neighborhood, which is near U.S. 19 and Alderman Road. The only way for her to move from the sidewalk to the street and back again was to use someone's driveway.

"If I went on a certain angle, I could go out," she said. But if the wheelchair got stuck or, worse, toppled over, "I'd have an "H' of a time getting up."

Now Zimmerman can sail down about 15 new sidewalk ramps at the corners of streets surrounding her house, thanks in part to a squeaky wheel -- and it wasn't on her wheelchair.

"It must have been in early June -- I just mentioned (the problem) in passing" to a friend, she said.

That friend was Dee Jackson, who lives several doors from Zimmerman's Orangeside Drive home. Jackson used to write a column on deed restrictions and homeowners associations for the now-defunct Clearwater Sun and is familiar with county officials.

In the weeks that followed, Zimmerman had no idea that Jackson had called County Administrator Fred Marquis about her problem. That first call led to others, among them to George McCorkel, north district supervisor for the county's highway division, and Judy Wiesner, a public works engineer specialist who handles requests for ramps.

"And all at once, before I knew it, I see these guys out -- they're digging up the corners of the streets," Jackson said.

Marquis said the work was routine. Workers had been maintaining sidewalks in East Lake, so it was easy to send them to Beacon Groves.

Marquis said standards for corner ramps were written around 1984, and the county has been updating older subdivisions' sidewalks ever since.

The county plans to spend $100,000 a year during the next five years installing ramps to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and officials are concentrating on county road intersections. In addition, there is another $1.7-million in county funds that could be used to improve sidewalks, depending on their location and proximity to schools.

Marquis said ramps are not expensive.

"I'd say it costs maybe $100 to tear out the old (corner) and put the preformed unit in and pour up to it," he said.

With site work, the Beacon Groves ramps will cost $8,000 to $10,000, according to estimates from Joe DeMoss, the engineering specialist who oversaw the building of Beacon Groves' ramps, and public-works finance manager Jerry Herron. Tagarelli Construction of Tarpon Springs, the county's contractor for North Pinellas sidewalk repairs, did the work in early July.

McCorkel said engineering service technician Cathy Reighard is working to compile a complete county inventory of sidewalks needing repair. Orange arrows and X's show where Reighard has marked sidewalk problems.

The sidewalks in Beacon Groves sported the orange marks when DeMoss went out to assess the request for new ramps.

"We were there; the request had validity," DeMoss said. There was still money in the ramp budget. "We said, "Let's accommodate her.' " He added that the county similarly put in one or two ramps for a wheelchair-bound man several months ago in the Eniswood subdivision a little to the northwest at Alderman and County Road 1.

Zimmerman, who said she learned much independence helping her husband run a trucking firm in which she drove 18-wheelers, was amazed by the ramps' quick installation.

Representatives from the county "called me up and told me they were going to put these in and where did I want them?" she said. She already was able to drive and to get around her house on foot by handing herself from "pillar to post," but Zimmerman said she thought she'd like to be able to motor to a nearby plaza -- in her wheelchair.

"I'm only pleased that they're doing this because there will be others after me," she said. "Really, it's for everybody."

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