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Newport Agrees to Development Plan for Skywheel

The much talked-about giant ferris wheel planned for the Newport riverfront could break ground later in the summer.

The City of Newport agreed to a development plan at Monday night's city commission meeting.

The project is being developed by St. Louis-based Koch Development.

"I'm afraid to say it, but I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel here," City Manager Tom Fromme told city leaders. 

First announced in 2015, the Skywheel project calls for a 240-ft. tall leisure attraction that was originally to be placed on property owned by Newport on the Levee. Fromme announced that that changed - and now the city will be more involved than previously known.

The Levee, which is currently going through a sale by the Price Group to North American Properties, announced a letter of intent with Koch Development three years ago. A year later, most of the local official word about the Skywheel was still coming from the Levee. In late 2017, Koch announced that it had engaged Woolpert Engineering to work on the $13 million project.

In May, the Army Corps of Engineers gave its blessing for the Skywheel project to move forward.

But now, the project has shifted, and because its location will have it jut out approximately 80-ft. into the Ohio River, Skywheel will be located on public property - effectively making it a city project. Fromme said the city is exploring the issuance of industrial revenue bonds and a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program to boost the development.

There will be a ticket booth constructed, and a pier leading to the ferris wheel.

The Army Corps of Engineers will have more to review once the development plan is signed and a lease agreement is reached. The Corps also wants to review the lighting plan to see how it could affect navigation on the water.

The lease will be brought back to the city commission for consideration at a later date. In the meantime, early signs indicate that the city will receive 16-cents per ticket sold, estimated to be valued at more than $70,000 annually, Fromme said. When adding in the tax revenue from the property (which, in this case, would be the equipment used rather than the land, and is estimated to be valued at $10 million) and payroll, the city estimates more than a $100,000 boon to its coffers each year.

"I think it will be a big attraction," Fromme said. "Our amount of money off this at the beginning was low, but since (the location) changed, the money and the lease are greatly enhanced moving forward."

"I think it's definitely going to be great for this region and a lot of people have been talking about it, so I'm excited as well," Mayor Jerry Peluso said.

Commissioner Thomas Guidugli noted that the future owners of the Levee also view the Skywheel as a boon to the area - contrary to a media report that the project was not viewed as important.

The development agreement was approved by a vote of 4 to 1, with Mayor Peluso and Guidugli joining Commissioners Frank Peluso and Beth Fennell in voting yes, while Commissioner Ken Rechtin opposed the plan. Rechtin noted that he is supportive of the project but disapproved of the lack of specifics of the proposed PILOT payment.

Fromme said that while the city's take from ticket sales will likely start at 16-cents for each one sold, the take will climb to 2.5 percent at some point in the future. "The more success they have, the better we do," he said.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Early rendering of the Newport Skywheel (RCN file)