With new river attraction set to open, OKC leaders hope it spins off revival of south side
By Steve Lackmeyer
The former Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel, featured in 28 movies, is once again set to be the star performer with a debut Monday for the July Fourth holiday along the Oklahoma River.
Soaring more than 100 feet over the Oklahoma River, the nine- story-tall, 30-foot-wide attraction kicks off the start of development at Wheeler, a mixed-used project led by Blair Humphreys that will include an array of housing styles, retail and offices. The ride was acquired for $132,400 when it was auctioned in 2008.
“My brother Grant bought it on eBay, and it's definitely our family's most exciting eBay purchase,” Blair Humphreys said.
What ensued was a complete workover of the Ferris wheel in Wichita, Kan., before it was transported to the south shore of the Oklahoma River earlier this year and put up, along with a snack shack, restroom, food truck pavilion and a public art display.
“There is a lot that went into this, from coordinating public art to rehabilitating a Ferris wheel and locating it along the banks of the Oklahoma River,” Humphreys said.
“We collaborated with Oklahoma City officials; we've worked with a range of designers; we worked with amusement ride specialists, and a lot of it had to go through approval. But we're here now; we're ready to open; we're excited to open.”
The Ferris wheel has 20 gondolas that each can accommodate up to eight people.
The ride can accommodate up to 300 passengers per hour.
During a testing event Thursday night, the wheel lit up in an array of patterns created by 100,000 programmable LED lights.
Visitors to the Wheeler Riverfront Plaza, meanwhile, already have gravitated in recent weeks to the 10-foot-tall, 27-foot-wide OKC letters sculpted by Hugh Meade that create an iconic picture setting with the Ferris wheel, Oklahoma River and downtown skyline in the background.
“It's a great place to get your picture,” Humphreys said.
“It screams Oklahoma City; it's the Oklahoma City photo op. It will be lit up each night, and we've worked with a local projection artist to screen some images off of it.”
Mayor Mick Cornett, himself a veteran in advertising and marketing, agreed and predicted the plaza will be make frequent appearances during future national broadcasts of Thunder playoff games.
Cornett is quick to recall Wheeler is a reminder of how much the river has changed from before it was transformed from an unsightly, often dry flood-control corridor to a restored, park-lined waterway as part of the city's original 1993 Metropolitan Area Projects.
“I think it will be one more amenity,” Cornett said.
“When the dams were built and water was impounded, there still wasn't much to see. Now, more and more, with Devon tower built and you can see that, and the Ferris wheel, and everything else along the river, it all matters.”
The Ferris wheel and plaza, which will often feature food trucks and various festivities, is set to be followed up by the first phase of developing housing at Wheeler.
“The Ferris wheel is just the start,” Humphreys said. “This is a 150-acre mixed use, infill neighborhood. ... You're going to see a mixture of uses and a mixture of housing ... and it will be place urban families can call home.”
Meg Salyer, whose Ward 6 includes Wheeler and surrounding working-class neighborhoods, believes it will help spark the sort of revival on the south shore of the river for south Oklahoma City that until now largely has been limited to the north shore.
The city has spent millions in recent years on improvements in partnership with the Boathouse Foundation and corporate contributors along the north shore where RiverSport Adventures is located, with city-supported improvements including parking and roads.
“South Oklahoma City is ready to see a lot of private investment,” Salyer said.
“I can argue the Ferris wheel is the first real visible symbol of that.”