Ups and downs seen over proposed Ferris Wheel

Molly Mosher
The Ferris wheel that may one day rise in Sandestin was built in 1962. It was notably in the film "Big," as well as holding a spot at a N.Y. theme park.

The Village of Baytowne Wharf hopes to join the ranks of London, Dallas, Chicago and Seattle with a famous Ferris wheel right out of Hollywood.

“High profile Ferris wheels are beginning to be a real In-vogue thing,” said Laurie Hobbs on behalf of Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, though she isn’t directly involved with the project. “This is something Sandestin has been thinking about … It’s something people are gravitating toward.”

And pending county approval, one of these relics of amusement park nostalgia may be coming to Sandestin.

The future placement of the 60-foot Big Eli 16 on Cannery Lane is hinging on approval from Walton County’s planning commission. The project first came before the planning commission at its Aug. 1 meeting, then again at the Sept. 5 meeting.

But Sandestin says that though they are “exploring options,” talk about the Ferris wheel is “premature” until the county gives its approval.

“We will abide by approval process and parameters set forth by the county,” said Hobbs.

‘A hell of an adventure’

Though it has yet to be approved, the wheel itself has been housed along the Gulf Coast since May.

This particular Big Eli had a colorful history in its 50 years of existence before coming to its latest resting place. In fact, if you’ve seen the 1988 movie “Big” with Tom Hanks, you’ve seen this specific wheel, as it was a part of the fair background.

It was Coney Island’s wheel before that, according to Russell Adcock. In 1990, it was set up close to the banks of Lake Ontario at Thunder Island Water Park in Fulton, N.Y. From there, Adcock and three other men went to retrieve it earlier this year.

Adcock, a longtime employee of Sandestin, and now-owner Tom Becnel, flew up to New York with three friends who had all been employed to disassemble the wheel and prepare it to be transported via truck to the area.

“It took us 80 hours” to disassemble it, said Adcock, who put in an additional 20 hours himself. “I knew it was going to be a hell of an adventure.”

After it was disassembled, the wheel parts were shipped to the Emerald Coast, and the parts were then taken to Navarre where it was to be re-painted or powder coated. Either treatment would cost about $100,000.

Nobody seems to know its whereabouts now, only that it will not come to Sandestin after approval by the county — that is if the Sandestin Owners Association has anything to say about it.

The Ferris Wheel Fight

The SOA, the nonprofit owners association for the resort, has prepared a list of why the Ferris Wheel should not be approved. This list was sent out as part of a letter by SOA President Kent Lillie to the nearly 3,500 Sandestin owners on the email list. The listed reasons include violation of the 50-foot county height restrictions and the planned site, behind Frill Seekers, being a wetlands area.

Lillie added that the response he has received to the letter sent out last week has been “100 percent in support of our position.”

The Ferris Wheel was first mentioned earlier this year, but, according to Lillie, “It was never brought to us for our opinion.”

Lillie is unsure how the project will proceed from here, but he hopes the county will do the right thing not to grant approval to the project.

“We don’t know what the timeline looks like, I don’t think the planning commission has issued their final approval of it,” he said. His letter also states that County Attorney Toni Craig saw a legal issue with the proposed location, due to the wetlands placement.

“We don’t know if that effectively kills the project or not; I suppose (Becnel) could move the location to somewhere else,” said Lillie. “We would still have objection to the height.”

Renee Bradley, planner in charge of this project, did not return multiple phone calls from The Sun. But county planning paperwork shows the Ferris wheel as being in compliance of wetlands protection, with a 25-foot buffer.

For the kids

Even if it is too early to really talk about it, Sandestin hopes to do a lot of good by means of the attraction.

“If it is approved … proceeds will go to children in need,” Hobbs said, of ticket prices being put toward the Sandestin Foundation for Kids, a foundation started by the Becnel family early this year.

“We want to deliver quality experience to not only our guests, but also our community. We’re well-intentioned: We’re looking to enhance the experience.”