Developer wants to build giant banjo-shaped Ferris wheel

Photo submitted Barry Lee, a Nashville developer, and consultant stands behind a model of a giant banjo-shaped Ferris wheel and drop tower he wants to build in downtown Owensboro.

Barry Lee wants to know if Owensboro wants a giant banjo-shaped Ferris wheel and drop tower downtown.

Lee, who described himself as a Nashville developer and consultant, told the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau on Tuesday that he wants to build the attraction somewhere on the downtown riverfront.

The Ferris wheel would be the body of the banjo.

The neck would be the drop tower -- a ride that takes people to the top of the tower and then lets them experience free-fall until the brakes kick in.

Lee said to stay within current limits for downtown structures, the top of the Ferris wheel could be 87 feet high and the top of the neck, 150 feet high.

It would be covered with LED lighting to make it stand out at night, he said.

David Johnson, a CVB board member who was an Owensboro city commissioner for six years, told Lee that the project might qualify for a variance that would allow it to be bigger.

Lee said he would recommend that it be larger.

He said his in-laws live in Owensboro.

"Owensboro has been on my radar for more than a year," Lee said. "Owensboro is exciting. Your riverfront is way more than Nashville's."

Empty buildings

He said, "Owensboro has put a lot of money in downtown. You already have great restaurants. But there are still a lot of empty buildings downtown. I want to do things with them."

Lee said he's not seeking any government funding.

"We would fund it," he said.

Lee said he's been involved with seven giant wheels in the past.

The one he's proposing for Owensboro could be built for around $1.5 million, he said.

If it's larger, it would cost a little more, Lee said.

He has proposed a $120 million project in Nashville -- called "Honky Tonk Broadway" -- that would include a 400-foot neon guitar-shaped Ferris wheel.

The Owensboro project would be much smaller, Lee said.

"It's a marketing tool for the community," he said. "We want to see how the idea is received here. We need people to get involved. The next step is finding the right location downtown. It needs to be close to the river. It would be the most photographed thing in Owensboro."

"We need something that's fun," Johnson said. "It could be like ziplining down Fremont Street in Las Vegas."

Brian Smith, vice chairman of the CVB, said the idea sounded good.

"But, it's the icing on the cake," he said. "It's not the cake."

Kyle Aud, CVB chairman, said he likes that the wheel would be shaped like a banjo.

"I think the theme is right," he said. "We've all bought into promoting Owensboro with bluegrass and bourbon."

Lee said he came to Owensboro for a Downtown Cruise-in and to Friday After 5 and liked what he saw.

But, he said, he came back, riding his motorcycle, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and stopped in several places to see how he was treated as a tourist.

"It wasn't positive from a tourist standpoint," he told the commission. "In one place, I stood around for 10 minutes and never got spoken to."

The community needs to work on that, Lee said.

He said he's the managing partner in a company called Southern Ventures Group.

"But I would be setting up a separate company here," Lee said.

He said the banjo-shaped Ferris wheel could be up and running within a year if everything goes well.

It would need a footprint of about 100 feet wide, Lee said.

"I want to develop more attractions here," he said. "But it depends on what people want."

This is the second time a giant Ferris wheel has been discussed for downtown.

In 2010, when the city commission was discussing what to do with the former Executive Inn property, one suggestion was to put a giant Ferris wheel on what's now the Kentucky Legend Pier.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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