The Ups and Downs of Rich Marin, the Ex-Banker Building the World’s Biggest Ferris Wheel

On Big Rich's Wild Ride, what comes around goes around

Rich Marin in his office at 17 State Street. (Matt Chaban)

I chose this place for two reasons,” Mr. Marin said, sitting at a patio table at Battery Gardens,  one of those overwrought banquet halls scattered about the city (cf. Tavern on the Green, Water Cafe) with killer views (in this case, of the harbor) but terrible food. “The first reason is you can see the site. The second is you can see all the tourists. Right now, we have 50 to 55 million tourists a year. Only 10 million of them are coming downtown, but that is a lot, and we expect it to grow as the World Trade Center reaches completion. It is a natural, captive audience.”

Fishermen gathered in clumps along the shore. The esplanade was thick with joggers and sightseers posing for photos in front of the sweeping panorama of the harbor. Just before our lunch began, a wedding was taking place on the patio, Lady Liberty serving as witness, along with many of the tourists who snapped away. Throughout the meal, the heavy bass of a dance party could be heard thumping from the second floor of the restaurant. Where the rivers converged beyond, hundreds of boats passed by, water taxis and pleasure cruises, behemoth container ships moored off the Port of Elizabeth, Circle Line tourist boats, tugs galore, and of course the giant orange Staten Island ferries.

Mr. Marin, who was wearing a navy blazer, light blue jeans and brown leather loafers, explained that the Statue of Liberty alone draws some 4 million tourists a year while another 2 million ride the Staten Island Ferry. The city has always struggled with how it might get tourists, and their wallets, off the free boat ride and beyond the St. George Terminal. The Staten Island Yankees have a stadium here, but aside from a few historic buildings, the borough’s 9/11 memorial and a nice view of Manhattan, that’s about it.

“The New York Wheel will be an attraction unlike any other in New York City—even unlike any other on the planet,” Mayor Bloomberg said at last week’s press conference. The new attractions “will put Staten Island right in the center of travel plans for millions of visitors to our city.”

Mr. Marin believes the appeal of his wheel will be impossible to resist, even at $20 a pop. “Do you have kids?” he asked (not yet, but in three years, who knows?). “So you’re on the ferry, and the wheel is getting bigger and bigger. Your 5-year-old, he’s barely tall enough to reach past the railing, but he sure can see this wheel, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. He starts asking, he’s begging, ‘Can we go? Can we go? I wanna go on the ferris wheel!’ I think daddy is going to have a harder and harder time not going on that wheel.” (On second thought, why rush parenthood?)

And if the wheel isn’t enough of an attraction, the Bloomberg administration has fallen back on that most reliable of tourist activities: shopping. The city encouraged the New York Wheel team to partner with BFC Partners, a developer that has made a habit of getting in on the ground floor of most of the city’s development waves of the past few decades: the East Village, East Harlem, Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn. Now, the firm has plans to bring New York City its very own outlet mall.

The idea for building the wheel in the “forgotten borough” started with the city. According to Mr. Marin, he approached the Bloomberg administration in March 2011, wanting to give a giant ferris wheel another go on behalf of his investors. It was NYC & Co. tourism czar George Fertitta who told him, “Go to Staten Island, young man.”

From then on, that was the plan. “What’s the old saying about the 800-pound gorilla? Where does it sit? Wherever it wants,” Mr. Marin noted. “Well, when the city wants you to build a 600-foot ferris wheel somewhere, that is where you build it.”

The wheel is being designed by Starneth, a boutique Danish firm responsible for the London Eye, as well as the Singapore Flyer and one of two competing wheels in Vegas.

But Mr. Marin said the Staten Island wheel is just the beginning—a flashy beacon meant to draw people to his real attraction, a sustainability museum, located in an 11,000-square-foot lot on his half of the 14-acre site. Indeed, Mr. Marin conceives of the entire project as a giant lesson in building a cleaner planet. And not just through green roofs and solar arrays. In summer, the observationpods—which operate on proprietary gyroscopes to remain level—will collect condensation as they make their 38-minute circuit, depositing two gallons each into the grey water system that runs the site’s toilets.

“This will be a world-class exhibition,” Mr. Marin said intently. “This is more than just the wheel. I think of this as a world heritage site in the making.”

The Ups and Downs of Rich Marin, the Ex-Banker Building the World’s Biggest Ferris Wheel