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Newport Approves Bonds for Skywheel, Expresses Enthusiasm for Project

"The Skywheel is not an urban myth."

City Manager Tom Fromme wanted the public to know Monday that the much-talked about giant Ferris wheel coming to the Newport riverfront is real, and will actually appear someday on an 80-ft. pier protruding out into the Ohio River.

"We are now coming to a conclusion of nearly three years of work here," Fromme said.

The city commission approved the issuance of $15 million in industrial revenue bonds for the project Monday night.

No city funds will be involved in bringing the 240-ft. tall attraction to the area around Newport on the Levee.

The Skywheel is already built, it just needs to be assembled in Florida, Fromme said. The longest part of the project, he said, would be creating the pier. The entrance to the attraction - which will boast heated and air conditioned gondolas to make it a year-round draw - will be found between Mitchell's Fish Market and Newport Aquarium.

The smaller Starwheel, currently operating as a temporary installation at the Cincinnati riverfront, gives potential visitors a taste of what's to come on the south side of the Ohio. Fromme referred to Starwheel - which stands at 150-ft. - as "a miniature version" of Skywheel. "Roughly, that's half the size of what we're talking about, and that's impressive over there," he said.

When Skywheel is operational, its developers project 400,000 annual riders - which will garner 16.5 cents each for the City of Newport.

Fromme told the city commission that the project will be a boon for the businesses at and around Newport on the Levee, which is still in the midst of a sale to North American Properties. Officials from that company have expressed enthusiasm for the Skywheel project, Fromme said, as they plan to invest $100 million on top of the purchase price to draw more people to the Levee.

"This is going to be a boost, a shot in the arm for the Aquarium, and for Mitchell's and Brio, and the Levee in general," Fromme said. With the additional investment from North American Properties, "the (Skywheel) is just a portion of the overall picture here."

"When this is all said and done, we're going to have a showpiece here," he said. "Our riverfront is going to be something magnificent."

Fromme also noted the forthcoming new lights for the Purple People Bridge to the east of the Levee as another element of the recreation of the riverfront.

A similar attraction is operated by the same developer in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"I was not an early adapter to the Skywheel," said city commissioner Thomas Guidugli. His optimism has grown since the project was announced. "One of the things that makes me feel really good is how successful the mini versions have been and the ridership they've achieved.

"I enjoy the hillside visual of the (Skystar in Cincinnati). It's an improvement to the skyline."

Other notes:

The city commission voiced its support for an increase in property taxes. The city is expected to accept the compensating rate plus 4 percent when it meets again Tuesday afternoon for a final vote.

The decision is expected to generate an additional $88,000 for the city's general fund.

Fromme and members of the city commission expressed frustration about the need to increase property taxes and that they are left with few alternatives for revenue.

Like many cities across the Northern Kentucky area, Newport faces increased costs related to public pensions, new digital radios for emergency responders, and other costs associated with local government.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Myrtle Beach location of Skywheel was hit by Hurricane Florence and had taken on water. A spokesperson for the company disputes that claim and says there was minimal impact from the storm and that the Myrtle Beach location is operating.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher