Man pays $20,000 for abandoned Diamond Shoals' light tower

A Minnesota man who has never seen the Diamond Shoals Light Tower – 13 miles off Cape Hatteras in the Atlantic Ocean – has bought the abandoned, rusting tower for $20,000 at federal auction.

Dave Schneider, 56, of Richfield, Minn., said he plans to restore the corroded, 46-year-old tower and turn it into a research, development and product-testing facility off the Outer Banks.

Schneider, a business executive, said he understands the daunting task of rehabbing the deteriorating tower. An engineering study commissioned by the General Services Administration concluded it would cost $2.3 million to make the weather-worn platform safe and inhabitable.

“I’m not going to buy it and flip it,” said Schneider, who received his title from the GSA last week. He also ruled out remodeling the tower to create an offshore casino or a hideaway at sea for wealthy vacationers. “My intention is to restore it, but not to restore it and sell it.”

“Do I know what exactly I have out there? No,” he acknowledged.

He said he planned his first visit to the tower and the Outer Banks in November.

“I don’t think it’s going to take $2.3 million.”

Schneider said he’s seeking technology partners for the project for what would be a center for evaluating new technologies – such as testing metal coatings in the harsh, salt-strewn environment. “It’s just one of these things that’s too good to pass up. I think there’s tons of potential.”

A Dare County commissioner, Allen Burris, said an offshore R&D center could be a positive for Dare.

“If he fixes it up, it’s a huge plus,” said Burris, who represents Hatteras Island.

The 2010 study of Diamond Shoals concluded that primary structural elements were sound. But engineers found depressions up to 15 feet wide in the flooring and in two places holes were open to the ocean. The GSA said the helicopter pad can’t support a landing and the tower’s bottom staircase is gone, making access by boat difficult but not impossible.

B&B at Frying Pan Tower

Both of North Carolina’s ocean light towers are now in private hands. Two years ago, Richard Neal of Mint Hill bought Frying Pan Tower, the twin of Diamond Shoals, for $85,000 at auction. GPS and other technology have made the towers obsolete.

Neal, with the help of volunteer welders and electricians, got Frying Pan Tower, 30 miles off Southport, up and running as a bed-and-breakfast that’s also available to researchers.

Schneider consulted Neal about renovating Frying Pan.

“First off, don’t get overwhelmed,” Neal said he told Schneider. “You have some areas that are in better shape and you have some areas that are in worse shape, such as flooring.”

Neal said renovations at Frying Pan were 25 percent of the estimated fix-up cost of $1.3 million. That estimate included renting a $10,000-a-day jack-up barge, which Neal chose not to use. The Diamond Shoals estimate includes $1 million for a barge.

Schneider said he also hopes to tap into volunteers. U.S. Coast Guard crews once lived in the five bedrooms, kitchen and rec room 70 feet above the ocean. He doesn’t know the original cost of Diamond Shoals, but Frying Pan was built for $2 million in 1964.

GSA forbade on-site inspections because of unsafe conditions, so Schneider drew on the study by Collins Engineering of Charleston, architectural drawings and 57 site photos.

Schneider is president of WECsys LLC in Brooklyn Park, Minn., a company that sells office supplies to the federal government. He bought the tower through Zap Water Technology, a company he owns that makes a nontoxic sanitizing agent.

GSA held two auctions on the tower. In the first in May, GSA got four bids ranging from $100 to $11,111. All were rejected, according to spokeswoman Saudia Muwwakkil in Atlanta. She said the minimum bid in the second auction in August was $15,000. Schneider submitted the only bid of $17,200. But he said GSA officials said the amount wasn’t a fair value and the two sides negotiated a price of $20,000.

Marking shoals since 1824

Diamond Shoals was erected in 1966 in 54 feet of water. The light was automated in 1977 and permanently turned off in 2001. Previous to that, a lightship or a lighted buoy had marked the shoals since 1824.

“Long term, I would like to be working with others, working with new sustainable technologies such as wind, solar, wave technologies, and related fields of research,” he said.

“I can also see interests from the biologists, marine biologists, climatologists, and even those developing products that need to be tested in an actual marine setting; metallurgists, desalination technologies, fishing equipment, coatings manufacturers, diving equipment.”