A Mint Hill man hopes to turn an abandoned tower standing 60 feet above the white-capped waves of the Atlantic into one of North Carolina's most distinctive vacation getaways.
The tower's 5,000 square feet of living space includes seven bedrooms, a kitchen and a rec room. Guests would come by boat or helicopter. They could expect fabulous views of sunrises, sunsets, sea turtles and even migrating whales.
The structure in question is the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower, a rusting, 44-year-old nautical landmark 25 miles off Southport along the southeastern N.C. coast. Now, an enterprising software sales engineer plans to convert the former U.S. Coast Guard outpost into a B&B unlike any in the country.
Richard Neal, who's not a developer, won the right to buy the tower in May in a government auction with a sealed bid of $85,000. His was the only bid, according to the General Services Administration in Atlanta.
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"That's either a really good price or a bad price," said Neal, 49, who lives just east of Charlotte. Then he added: "Oceanfront property for $85,000?"
Neal doesn't yet own the 125-foot-high tower. He's put 20 percent down and says he intends to close the deal by an Aug. 2 deadline. He'd get a bill of sale that wouldn't include the seabed beneath.
After he restores the tower, Neal said he plans by next summer to open it for overnight rentals for sport fishermen and, by 2012, a high-seas hideaway for vacations and corporate retreats.
And no, he asserts, he won't put in an offshore casino.
Neal hasn't set foot on the tower, though he's flown over it. (He's a private pilot.) The GSA didn't allow inspections by bidders because of safety issues. The lower part of the tower's ladder was swept away by a hurricane. The heliport may need some work.
How does he know the aging edifice built for $2 million won't topple into the ocean?
He relies on an engineering study that cites corrosion but says the tower is in "satisfactory" condition overall. A firm hired by the Coast Guard inspected the tower last winter and estimated repairs at $1.37 million. Half the cost would go for a "jack-up vessel" or work-station barge.
But Neal says a local contractor who's worked on the site told him repairs could be done without the vessel, thus reducing costs. Neal envisions putting in solar cells and a small windmill to help generate electricity, plus a cell phone tower. He said he won't know what the improvements will cost until he visits the site.
He sees no regulatory barriers; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington would issue permits for work, according to a spokeswoman.
This would be the first light tower converted into a private vacation spot, says James Hyland, president and founder of the Lighthouse Preservation Society in Dover, N.H. "This is an unusual concept. It's a great idea. Opens it up to the public."
He said fewer than a half-dozen of the towers that are based on the design of oil-drilling rigs remain in the U.S., including the Diamond Shoals tower off Cape Hatteras.
Frying Pan tower went up in 1966 with a beacon to warn ships of the Frying Pan Shoals, shallow sandbars south and east of Bald Head Island. The Coast Guard automated the place in 1979, eliminating the need for the four-man crew. In 2003, the agency planned to cut down the deactivated facility to make an artificial reef to attract fish.
Neal has been busy looking into liability insurance, consulting with maritime lawyers and working up a business plan for a Small Business Administration-backed loan. He's also counting on numerous people on the coast who have volunteered their time to help fix up the tower. "This place has a strong affection for a lot of people," he said.
He stumbled onto the tower's 2009 auction while surfing the Web. He qualified to bid but held off as bids escalated to $515,000. The high bidder didn't follow through.
In last May's auction, Neal bid $12,000. GSA officials told him the bid was below the "minimum market value" but didn't reveal the amount (which is confidential, a GSA spokesman said by e-mail). So Neal upped his bid to $85,000.
He said while he's never developed any property, he cites broad experience from previous occupations: construction company operator, industrial hygienist, draftsman for a pipeline company and electrician's assistant. His wife, Rhonda, would manage what he calls the Frying Pan Tower.
"My dream is not to build it up and flip it," he said last week, referring to the practice of reselling real estate quickly for a profit. "But return it to its use of what it should be."
Asked if he would sell the tower for now if someone offered an extravagant price, he replied, "I don't know. I don't know. Right now it's a rusty, old chunk of steel sitting in the ocean that needs a lot of tender loving care."