Travel

New life for N.C.'s Frying Pan Shoals offshore tower

Though he hasn't set foot on it yet, a Mint Hill man on Wednesday took ownership of an abandoned light tower 25 miles off the southeastern N.C. coast. He paid $85,000 for it. He intends to turn the tower into a high-seas bed-and-breakfast and corporate retreat starting next summer.

Software sales engineer Richard Neal picked up the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower at a federal government auction in May with the only sealed bid. He then put down 20 percent.

Neal, 50, says that within a week or so, he plans to send skilled volunteers to inspect the 44-year-old rusting tower, its electrical system and living quarters. The group will also post "Keep Off/Private Property" signs.

Neal won't be among the group of electricians, mechanics and architects because he's scheduled to be in Europe on a sales trip during that period. He says he hopes to get aboard the structure - which has seven bedrooms, a kitchen, a recreation room and helicopter landing platform - by mid-September.

"I am feeling thrilled, exuberant, of having something that will impact so many people positively," he said Wednesday.

The General Services Administration, which auctioned off the tower, is sending Neal a bill of sale, according to Lou Mancuso, the GSA official who handled the auction. The deal was finalized Wednesday.

"He's in possession," Mancuso said from Atlanta.

The light tower went up in 1966 at a cost of $2 million. The U.S. Coast Guard automated it in 1979, eliminating the need for the four-man crew. In 2003, the tower was deactivated.

Neal owns the tower but not the seabed beneath. Asked if he got a key, as one would get on closing for a house, Neal replied no. "My understanding is, it's unlocked."

Neal and Mancuso said the bill of sale provides that Neal can use the tower for anything he wants so long as he complies with federal rules and regulations and any applicable state laws. Neal has said he does not intend to open an offshore casino. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Wilmington would issue permits for restoration and modifications.

He's arranged for liability insurance, which would cover anyone injured on the tower, at an annual premium that he pegged as midway between $30,000 and $85,000.

An engineering study arranged last winter by the Coast Guard noted corrosion but concluded the tower overall is in "satisfactory condition." The study estimated repairs at $1.37 million. But Neal said he's been told by a local contractor who's worked on the tower that restoration could be done at half that cost. He has no estimate yet on improvements.

Neal has been taking reservations for stays at the tower on his web site, www.fptower.com, to gauge the market. But he said he's taken no deposits. So far, he said, he's gotten interest from 13 families and businesses for extended stays.

Beginning next summer, Neal aims to open the tower for multi-night rentals with meals for anglers on sport-fishing boats. From Southport or Wilmington, sport-fishing boats can reach the tower in about an hour and a half.

By the summer 2012, Neal plans upgrades that will allow longer-stay vacations and corporate retreats 60 feet above the waves of the Atlantic.

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