Discover Downtown Merrill raised more than $1,600 for Relay for Life with a cancer awareness campaign that definitely got its share of attention - both positive and negative.
The "Bras Across the Bridge" campaign involved stringing over 1,000 bras across the Center Avenue bridge over the Wisconsin River. The bras were collected at various donation sites over a five-week period. Members of Discover Downtown Merrill attached the donated bras to baler twine, which was strung along the light poles on the bridge. The spans between the poles ranged from 205 to 265 feet.
The bras went up Sunday, July 29, with the help of labor and a lift from Wendorf Construction. The baler twine, however, didn't hold up as the bras acted as sails in the wind. The baler twine stretched and the bras became a traffic hazard on the bridge. Discover Downtown Merrill volunteers responded by fastening the twine to the bridge railings. This solved the problem, but brought the bras within reach of pedestrians.
There were two incidents Monday of people attempting to remove the bras from the bridge. In one incident, a woman who claimed affiliation with an anti-pornography group attempted to cut down some of the bras. In the middle of the night a man, who also claimed to be acting in protest to the display, was arrested by Merrill police after removing more than 80 bras from the bridge.
With the help of steel wire and RTL Electric's crew and bucket truck, the display was secured Tuesday and mostly stayed put the rest of the week.
Organizers hadn't anticipated the logistical problems of keeping 1,094 bras suspended over a bridge for several days.
"We're not engineers," said Bras Across the Bridge co-chair Christine Vorpagel. "We had some difficulty with the execution."
Volunteers put in time every day keeping an eye on the lines, and constantly checking the forecast for threatening weather.
On Friday afternoon, the bras came down for good. Bras Across the Bridge was initially slated to stay up until Sunday, but with a storm in the forecast, organizers decided not to press their luck and brought the bras down early. They will be clipped from the twine, laundered and sent to the Bras Recyclers in Milwaukee. The Bras Recyclers is a textile recycling company that sends recycled and reconditioned bras to needy women all over the world.
The organizers also hadn't anticipated the vociferousness of the opposition to Bras Across the Bridge, which referred to the campaign as everything from tasteless to immoral.
"I figured we might get some (opposition), but the intensity of it, the quantity was more than I expected," Vorpagel said.
Vorpagel insists the Bras Across the Bridge campaign was never meant to be offensive.
"We were trying to be respectful and honor the women who are survivors," she said. "There was a group of people who didn't care for this idea. I would encouraged them to come up with a good idea in 2013."
For all the discouraging words, there were many - including cancer survivors - who supported Bras Across the Bridge and praised their efforts.
Despite all the difficulties, Vorpagel considers the campaign to have been successful.
"Our goal was 1,000 bras and $1,000 (to Relay for Life), and we surpassed both of them," she said. "It was a marrying of two ideas together, Relay for Life and the downtown Merrill businesses, and it worked for both. As a side benefit, it really brought some cohesion to the downtown businesses."
Bras Across the Bridge received permission from the Merrill Street Department and Police Department, and was carried out without any taxpayer dollars.
"We did not solicit any money, this was all done by volunteer donations," Vorpagel said."All the money went to Relay for Life."
But, Merrill won't be seeing another Bras Across the Bridge campaign any time soon.
"This is a one-shot deal," Vorpagel said. Doing it again, she added, would lessen its impact.