U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Newport SkyWheel project poses 'unacceptable risk'

Developer to address concerns with revised plan
Posted at 5:30 PM, Aug 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-09 07:37:34-04

NEWPORT, Ky. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has sent the Newport Skywheel project back to the drawing board.

A June 28 letter raised several concerns about constructing a giant observation wheel at Newport on the Levee.

"We told them that the proposal they submitted was an unacceptable risk to the levee embankment,” said Christina Neutz, a geotechnical engineer and levee subject matter expert in the Army Corps’ Louisville district office.

“We’re not saying it can’t be done,” Army Corps spokeswoman Carol Labashoshky added. “It just needs to be done in a manner that ensures the integrity of the levee and maintains public safety.”

A spokesman for the city of Newport and the project’s St. Louis-based developer said they are working on ways to address the Corps’ concerns. It’s not clear how much that will add to the project’s cost and timeline. St. Louis –based Koch Development told WCPO in early June that it hoped to receive a permit from the U.S. Army Corps in a matter of weeks and be under construction this summer.

Koch Development has proposed a giant Ferris wheel with 30 six-person, glass-enclosed gondolas that take passengers to a height of 235 feet above the Ohio River. Passengers would pay about $15 each for rides that will last 10 to 12 minutes and make three to four rotations. 

The project was introduced in 2015 and carries a price tag in excess of $10 million, said Matt Stack, managing director for Koch Development, in early June.

The developer expected construction to take about a year, with piers and concrete and steel piles being installed through the earthen flood wall east of the Newport Aquarium. The piers would support a platform on which the giant wheel would operate.

The U.S. Army Corps declined to provide its June 28 letter to the city of Newport. But the Corps released a statement:

The current design and construction methods present an unacceptable risk to the structural integrity of the levee embankment. The Corps wrote a letter to the City of Newport on June 28 which outlined options to construct a wheel that would take the levee into account, and ensure the levee system would operate as it was designed -- to provide flood risk reduction. We gave detailed policy and procedural guidance for Newport and Koch to understand the process to move forward.

In an interview with Army Corps' levee safety team, Neutz said the regulatory agency's experts “all the way up the chain of command” were asked to review the plans. Ultimately, the safety team concluded the project could impair the integrity of the Newport flood barrier in multiple ways.

"The foundation information that was provided to us showed there were going to be numerous penetrations in the levee system,” Neutz said. “It can cause a lot of internal erosion of the embankment material.”

Beyond that, Neutz said the installation of piers would be accomplished with hydraulic fracturing that could render the levee more vulnerable to water erosion. A third issue involves the “dynamic load” of an observation wheel that vibrates as it spins, putting stress on the levee embankment.

"That’s not what the levee was designed for,” she said. “We provided them information on options they should look at.”

Those options include relocating the SkyWheel to a site away from the levee embankment or replacing the levee with a concrete flood wall, Neutz said.

“We are resubmitting plans to handle concerns raised by the Corps,” Stack wrote via text message “We still expect to be opening approximately 12 months following (the Corps') approval.”