Rigoberto Valdes is just a marble salesman from North Miami Beach — trying to build something akin to the world’s largest Ferris wheel in downtown Miami.
Over the past three years, Valdes, his brother and his two sons have quietly developed a series of plans to design, build and finance a monumental theme-park attraction in South Florida. Valdes, 56, says they have shopped their idea during meetings with numerous politicians and government officials, at first hoping to receive approval to build at PortMiami, then Fort Lauderdale’s Swimming Hall of Fame, then the vacant lot behind the AmericanAirlines Arena.
None of those sites panned out, and so now the company they created, Caribe-Miami Corp., is seeking to erect the 650-foot-tall steel oval above the FEC boat slip between the arena and Museum Park. They’re calling it “Eye on the Bay” — even if one key local politician is calling it “horrible.”
The structure — which New York engineer Malcolm McLaren explained isn’t actually a Ferris wheel — would rotate glass-skinned pods large enough to host a small party on a track around a 2,000-ton steel oval. The track would be mounted atop four legs that dive directly into the water.
The $350million structure would include a restaurant and bar about 250 feet up in the air, plus a retail-lined walkway beneath the wheel connecting Museum Park and Parcel B behind the arena. The walkway would be 40 or 50 feet above the slip, tall enough to allow a number of yachts to continue to dock along the seawall, McLaren said.
But first, Valdes, director of operations for the company, needs permission from the city and the county to build on public land and bay bottom. Right now it appears that may be a long shot, but Valdes says he’s going to make it happen.
“I think we can convince the city,” said Valdes, whose sons run the company while he markets the project. “This came to my mind while I was watching the Olympic Games in London. We saw the London Eye and said, ‘Why don’t we have this in Miami?’”
With the help of family, Valdes created plans he first called Miami Skyline Wheel for a traditional Ferris wheel at the PortMiami site where Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez once proposed building a Ferris wheel back when he was a county commissioner. When that site didn’t pan out, he spoke with Fort Lauderdale officials about building just off Fort Lauderdale beach.
Then he began to talk to county commissioners about Parcel B, the county-owned lot behind the arena where the Miami Heat plays. He said he had at least three discussions with Gimenez’s former chief of staff, Lisa Martinez, and also met with most of the county commission, some of whom were enthusiastic.
Martinez said the meetings never went beyond looking at renderings, and she referred Valdes to the procurement office.
He has a team of noted experts. McLaren Engineering Group, which designed the wheel, has worked on everything from theme park rides at Universal Studios to Rolling Stone stage setups. President Malcolm McLaren called the attraction “a new concept.”
“To me this augments the use of the waterfront. I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
LEDO International is conducting a feasibility study for the project, Valdes said. And Miami architect Kobi Karp is aboard.
“It worked successfully in London,” said Karp, referencing the London Eye Ferris wheel. “The question is, do we want it to work in Miami? And is it the right platform?”
Valdes said the port clearly was not the right spot. And Parcel B became moot when Miami-Dade commissioners agreed to support a Cuban exile museum behind the area. Now it seems, that for all Valdes’ wishful thinking, the FEC slip might not be in play either.
“It’s horrible,” Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents downtown, said of the project.
Sarnoff actually publicized the first details of Valdes’ vision Thursday during a city commission meeting, although it wasn’t to advertise the idea. Sarnoff opposes the attraction, and said Valdes told his chief of staff that all the other commissioners were in favor of the project, and that he was holding it up.
“I’m not in favor of Eye on the Bay or anything of a magnitude like that, and if there is a commissioner that’s having conversations about this, then go on record and let us know that’s your vision,” Sarnoff said during the meeting.
Only two other commissioners were in attendance Thursday evening. Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort said he’d met with Caribe-Miami Corp, and told them, “I don’t think you can do it downtown.” Francis Suarez said his staff had scheduled a meeting next week.
Other hurdles: Most any proposal to build on or near the bay has been controversial, as the public has been protective of the few waterfront views and access that remain in Miami. And the Miami commission can be difficult.
Healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez, for instance, recently backed off plans to build a massive American flag and veterans memorial on the same corner of Museum Park after he said relations soured with some elected officials.
Valdes, however, is optimistic. He says the project would be open to the public and would spur foot traffic in downtown between Museum Park and Bayside Marketplace, where the 1,000-foot observation tower SkyRise Miami is to be built. He says each pod would take a half-hour to move once around the wheel and would hold about 25 people, large enough to host parties and weddings.
He said he’s still securing financing, but has interested local investors and plans to seek Chinese investors through the U.S. EB-5 visa program.
“We’re a poor family,” he said. “But we have big ideas.”