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Towering Expectations

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TAMPA - If developer Frank DeBose's proposed 624-foot observation tower rises over downtown Tampa as promised, it could become one of the area's most recognizable and visited landmarks.

Or not.

Observation towers are such a rarity in the United States that it's impossible to predict what the Pinnacle of Tampa Bay might mean to the area's image and economy.

The nation's most recent example is more than 8 years old: the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas, which opened in 1996.

Outside the United States, observation towers have been built with more frequency. Since 1980, towers have risen in a number of cities, including Buenos Aires, Argentina; Sydney, Australia; Madrid, Spain; and Fukuoka, Japan. Sky Tower, rising more than 1,075 feet over Auckland, New Zealand, opened in 1997. The 475-foot Vasco da Gama Tower in Lisbon, Portugal, made its debut in 1998.

DeBose said the inspiration for the Pinnacle comes partly from the Gateway Arch, a national monument and a defining image for St. Louis. Just as the Arch symbolizes St. Louis' role in the United States' westward expansion, the Pinnacle will mark Tampa's place in the exploration of Florida by Spain.

``I want to capture the story of the past ... and to show where we are going and how we are going to get there,'' he said.

DeBose has high expectations for the Pinnacle: He wants the observation tower to become an icon for Tampa, a tourist draw, and a physical and symbolic central point for entertainment and the arts.

It's too soon to tell whether DeBose's project will deliver on its promises, but an examination of other observation towers across the country, as well as towers from other parts of the world, hint at what the Pinnacle could bring to Tampa.

Iconic Status

It takes more than a perch in the sky to create an icon for a city.

The 605-foot Space Needle, which opened in Seattle in 1962, quickly became a symbol for that city and one of the most recognizable buildings in the United States.

Other towers that have become defining symbols are the Eiffel Tower in Paris, CN Tower in Toronto and the Washington Monument.

But Texas' 622-foot Tower of the Americas, opened in 1968 in San Antonio, never achieved the fame or status of the Seattle observation tower. And the Stratosphere Tower is no more a symbol for Las Vegas than any other attraction on the city's neon-drenched Strip.

In the Tampa Bay area, there's reason to believe the Pinnacle would play into the region's identity in much the same way the Space Needle became an icon for Seattle.

``The Tampa Bay area has multiple personalities, but it doesn't have one image,'' said Michael Beyard, a senior resident fellow for the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

``In a city that doesn't have a defining image, it [the observation tower] may be important,'' he said.

Beyard said regional and city icons, such as an observation tower, play an important role in tourism and economic development efforts.

``Cities need strong images these days because there's so much competition for jobs and tourists and investment and everything else,'' he said. ``Every city wants to be branded, and to have its own distinct brand that stands out in this crowded marketplace.''

Observation towers are just ``one arrow in the quiver'' for a community in search of a defining symbol, Beyard said. ``But they are so rarely used, and so few of them, you can't say this is a silver bullet.''

An observation deck alone won't spur additional development downtown, said Dave Feehan, president of the International Downtown Association in Washington. But an observation tower that's part of a larger complex - perhaps with retail, housing and entertainment - could precede additional investment in the area, he said.

``The one mistake that we've made in this country for 30 years is that we've believed that one single project like this can cure all of a downtown's ills,'' Feehan said. ``There's seldom a single project that acts as a catalyst. Typically, the best thing to do is to create a mixed-use project and have an identifiable symbol, like this, as part of it.''

The Pinnacle of Tampa Bay, as proposed, would be part of a four-block complex with retail space, an entertainment center, a hotel, office space and condominiums. DeBose's development company would be responsible for the observation tower and attached entertainment center, and a joint venture between DeBose's firm and another local development company would handle the remainder of the complex.

Towers As Revenue Sources

Nearly all observation towers make money, ``providing, of course, that events which are unplanned or out of their control do not prevail,'' Mike Wiggins, secretary-general of the World Federation of Great Towers, wrote in an e-mail interview.

Wiggins is general manager of the observation deck at the Rialto Tower in Melbourne, Australia.

Most companies that own or run observation towers don't reveal how much money they make: Some are privately owned and not required to report revenue, and others are owned by corporations that don't separate observation- tower sales from other operations.

To make money, observation towers can charge for:

* Admission to the tower.

* Special attractions, such as bungee-jumping, roller coasters or adventure rides.

* Food and drinks.

* Souvenirs.

* Space leased for broadcast and telecommunications equipment.

Towers tend to attract tourists and locals because people have a natural curiosity about the view from high above, Wiggins said.

``The building of a tower is one of the oldest dreams of humanity. From the top of a tower man could see further, he could protect himself better, and the sign of this power was perceptible in every direction,'' he wrote.

``Today, of course, towers are built for other reasons, but people still have the desire to visit the highest vantage point. In most cases, the tower offers the best opportunity for people to get a one-stop look at the city or region they are visiting.''

Admission varies from tower to tower. Auckland's Sky Tower reports 700,000 visitors a year. Sydney Tower in Australia and Reunion Tower in Dallas both claim more than 1 million visitors annually. Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls, Ontario, reports 3 million visitors a year.

Reunion Tower, part of the Hyatt Regency Dallas, holds eight to 10 private events a week, public relations coordinator Erika Gonzalez said.

Wiggins said ``research, research and more research'' is needed to build and operate a successful observation tower. That includes an understanding of the structural and engineering considerations that go into building an observation tower as well as knowledge of what the community expects.

Wiggins suggested some questions for the community to ask when an observation tower is proposed.

``One should weigh up both the negatives and positives: What will the tower provide in benefiting the local community? Will it provide jobs and what will it do for the local tourism industry? Will it improve communications?'' he wrote. ``On the other side, of course, one needs to make sure it doesn't have a negative impact on the environment. Its design should enhance the skyline.''

Observation towers, like any other tourist draw, must adapt to changing tastes by adding attractions.

The Space Needle completed a $20 million overhaul in 2000, updating the landmark's entry level, restaurant and observation deck. Sydney Tower is adding an outdoor attraction, Skywalk, that puts visitors on the roof of the observation deck. At 850 feet, participants wearing special outfits and harnessed to safety rails will be led around the tower by guides.

Niagara Falls' Skylon Tower opened in 1965 with a large exhibition hall for corporations such as General Motors Corp. and Hershey Foods Corp., sales director David Gillies said. Through the years, that space has been dressed up as a retail village and food court, an indoor carnival, and is now a video arcade, he said.

In Tampa, DeBose said he hopes that by drawing upon the area's history and reflecting its present, he will create an attraction for tourists - and for locals - that can become a beacon for the region's future.

``We want this to be a part of the arts, the culture, the entertainment and the tourism for Tampa,'' he said. ``This will be a focal point for drawing people in.''

Reporter Dave Simanoff can be reached at (813) 259- 7762

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