A $10 Million ride
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Developers envision a tram extenting from Flagstaff Mountain to downtown Jim Thorpe.
Imagine gliding from a mountaintop high above the picturesque borough of Jim Thorpe, safe and secure inside a state-of-the art aerial tram that offers panoramic views of the spectacular scenery.
A group of developers in Carbon County want to turn that vision into reality, planning a $10 million sky tram that would take riders nearly 900 feet from Flagstaff down to Susquehanna Street in Jim Thorpe and back again.
The group, which includes Flagstaff developer Surreal Properties Inc. and Flagstaff Resort land Holdings Ltd., hope to have the ride operating by fall, when the bright hues of turning leaves draw thousands of visitors to the borough, but realize it may take a little longer. The companies have plans in place for a multimillion dollar hotel and resort complex atop Flagstaff mountain, where Gallo's Restaurant and ballroom now sit.
Timothy R. Markley of Flagstaff Management Corporation and others say the tram project would generate about $2 million a year for its year-round operation, and another $10 million in new jobs springing from increased revenues from tourist dollars.
"We do know that it will be profitable from our research of other trams," Markley said. "The spinoff from these trams is pretty substantial for the local community."
The group has studied air trams at Stone Mountain, Georgia and Palm Springs, California, each of which draw hundreds of thousands of riders a year.
But if plans for the aerial tram don't get off the ground that fast, that's OK, too, said project marketer Larry A. Masi of Dominion Development Group in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. They're willing to launch the system next year if need be.
Masi is working with Markley, consultant Bruce Conrad, who is a former Carbon County planning director, and others to bring the skyway dream to reality. Developers have formed a separate company, Jim Thorpe Aerial Tram, Ltd, for the venture.
The tram system is being designed and manufactured by Doppelmayr CTEC of Salt Lake City, Utah. Each of the two planned aerial trams would make the trip down or back in about three minutes, said Peter Weidemann of Doppelmayr.
"It's designed to carry 300 people per hour," Markley said. "One car would be going down while another is coming up, so it would be energy efficient." He figures at least 200,000 people a year would ride the trams.
The trams would be the first of their kind in the United States and would be about 350 feet above ground at the highest point of the trip, said Dopplemayr vice-president of sales Tom Sanford.
Plans call for each tram car to carry up to 15 passengers. They would travel from Flagstaff down to a landing built over the county-owned parking lot between the domestic relations building and the archive building on Susquehanna Street. The 7,395-square-foot landing would be anchored into the mountain and feature a corporate-sponsored visitor's center, ticket sales, rest rooms, "green space," shops and a cafe. The concept would allow the county to continue using the 34-space parking lot, which would be covered, or build a structure underneath the landing, which developers say would be 20 feet off the ground.
The site is perfect for a landing, Markley said.
"We can anchor into the mountainside, into the rock. We can have an elevated deck over the parking lot. The county would benefit by having a covered parking area, which is less maintenance, and we'd create public space where none exists right now," he said.
Under the original plan, the archives building would have been demolished to make way for a visitors' center. However, after plans to buy the building fell through, developers revised their plans. Now, developers want the county to lease them air space over the parking lot and mountain.
The project could eventually include a walkway over Susquehanna Street, Masi said.
The aerial tram would launch from an area that developers expect to be the basement level of a proposed 86,000-square-foot, five-story hotel/condominium/resort complex, which would include a spa/wellness center, at Flagstaff. Conrad said the group wants to build the air tram before the hotel complex is up because of its value as a marketing tool for the hotel complex.
"Once people are up there, they are astonished by the view," he said, and more likely to be interested in buying a condominium.
The riders would enter and exit the tram through an attached, glass-enclosed walkway that would be soundproofed for the convenience of hotel guests.
While the plans are coming together, developers still have work to do.
Dopplemayr has completed engineering on the project, Conrad said, and is poised to submit the plan to the state Department of Labor and Industry for approval. Developers also need easements from the Turkey Hill Corporation, the county and Highland Beverage, and a zoning permit from Jim Thorpe Borough.
The hotel project has been wending its way through county and local approval processes for years, with developers tweaking the concept as it goes. Jim Thorpe Borough Council in October rejected the plans, and the county Planning Commission on Nov. 17 chose not to recommend approval of preliminary land development plans for the hotel complex because several items in the plans did not comply with local ordinances. However, three days later, Jim Thorpe Borough Planning Commission recommended preliminary plan approval.
Although the developers demur when asked about financing, they said the group has letters of commitment and letters of intent from potential partners and investors. "We have a couple different sources. We have investors that have made commitments," Markley said."This is something we've been working on for years."
"We're close to having it all," Masi said.
The group has launched a Web site about the project, www.JimThorpeSkyTram.com.
Developers say some local businesses are on board with the project and have expressed interest in a marketing alliance.
The aerial tram project "sounds intriguing," said Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau Executive Director Carl Wilgus. "Obviously, it would seem to have tremendous tourism potential, and may even alleviate some traffic congestion, if done appropriately. It sounds like the ride itself would be an attraction, and would link to other attractions."
Carbon County Chamber of Commerce president Michael Heery reserved judgment, saying he would like the group to present the project to the Chamber. "I'd definitely be interested in finding out more about it," he said.
Developers met last week at Gallo's Restaurant at Flagstaff with Berks Ridge construction consultants, Peter Weidemann and Tom Sandford of Dopplemayr and several representatives from the state Department of labor and Industry, who peppered Weidemann and Sanford with questions about the mechanics and safety of the tram system.
They asked technical questions about weight limits (the trams each hold more than 2,000 pounds), cable strength (there will be two "nested" cables), windows (up high and very narrow), doors (one). The safety factor is five times the required standard.
The system must meet stringent American National Standard safety requirements, L&I representatives said. The department would inspect the rides at least twice a year.
The idea of cable cars or an aerial tram isn't new. Decades ago, TIMES NEWS reporter Joe Boyle wrote a tongue-in-cheek April Fool's Day story proclaiming the advent of such a project. State Rep. Keith McCall, developers said, enthusiastically endorsed the idea in the early 1980s.
Plans seemed to take shape again in 1989, when Jake Arner, who at the time owned Flagstaff Park along with Rita Hydro and Robert Arner, planned a 200-room hotel and convention center with a cable car/gondola/tram system.
In June, 2008, the current developers' project received a $50,000 state Commonwealth Financing Authority grant to study its feasibility. Then, Markley planned a six-story, 78-unit hotel and restaurant resort at the top of the mountain.