Developer: Newport SkyWheel on track for late 2017 opening

Posted at 11:59 AM, Sep 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-06 17:06:10-04

NEWPORT, Ky. -- The Newport SkyWheel is still on track for liftoff in 2017, albeit a few months later than planned.

WCPO reported Aug. 18 that the U.S. Army Corps sent a letter to Koch on June 28 that said “the current design and construction methods present an unacceptable risk to the structural integrity of the levee embankment.”

READ MORE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says Newport Skywheel poses 'unacceptable risk'

Nobody involved believes the Corps will ultimately stop the project, though. City officials continue to be optimistic and Matthew Stack, managing director of Koch Development in St. Louis, Missouri, said the Corps’ response was just a part of the process.

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

Jack Moreland, president of Southbank Partners, which helps develop the riverbanks, said they will continue to push until it’s done and open.

As it's planned now, the 235-foot structure (about 21 stories) should offer a peek into the Great American Ball Park and 360-degree views. It will have 30 enclosed gondolas open year-round as a boost to tourism and a spur to revitalization along the river.

Stack said Friday that since Koch first submitted plans to the Corps in January, they have continued their due diligence on the site, constantly updating the geotechnical studies and improving the structural engineering for the project.

“The letter (from the Corps) did not include any specific objection” to the plan, he said. “It had the state quote that they could not approve the plan as submitted."

In August, the Corps told WCPO that “we gave detailed policy and procedural guidance for Newport and Koch to understand the process to move forward.”

Even so, Stack said that Koch was making changes all along and resubmitted an improved plan Aug. 18 that specifically addressed the levee issues.

In the revised submission, Koch changed the kind of fill material to avoid any settling or seepage and made “significant changes” since the beginning of the year, said Stack.

In an interview with Army Corps' levee safety team, Christina Neutz, a geotechnical engineer in the Army Corps’ Louisville district office, 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.

Most of the changes addressed the engineering on the project. The concept does not change its location in the resubmitted plan.

“I believe it will get accomplished,” said Moreland.

As exciting as it is, no one wants to compromise the integrity of the levees -- especially in light of disastrous levee breaches in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, he said.

But “engineers can do miraculous things,” Moreland added. “The folks (at Koch) have thought through this whole process."

The new timeline for the SkyWheel will start as soon as the Corps gives the project the thumbs up. It takes about a year from start of construction to opening, said Stack, and weather and restrictions by the Corps could delay any start date.

At the moment, they’re planning for opening in December 2017.

Tom Fromme, Newport city manager, believes the naysayers just don’t have a vision.

“It’s going to be good for the city,” he said.

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.

Business reporter Dan Monk contributed to this report.