Melbourne's Big Wheel Keeps on Burning Through Cash

DPA, December 20, 2011

There were so many things it was supposed to be: a tourist magnet for Melbourne, Australia's second-biggest city; a slap in the face for Sydney, the city's eternal rival; a one-of-a-kind wonder of the world for the southern hemisphere.

The Southern Star Observation Wheel is none of those: it lies in bits on the waterfront, still a long way from fulfilling its promise as the biggest Ferris wheel south of the equator.

"We don't have an opening date at all," says Marjorie Johnston, spokeswoman for a project that has dented many reputations.

The wheel opened in December 2008, six months after the first customers clambered aboard the Singapore Flyer, at 165 metres the world's tallest ferris wheel.

Melbourne's 100-million-US-dollar attraction closed after just a month when some of the steel struts cracked and buckled. "As a result of extensive technical reviews a conclusion was reached to build a new wheel," was how management described the way forward.

The new wheel, at 120 metres is shorter than the London Eye (135 metres) and so third in a height ranking topped by the Singapore Flyer. It will have 21 cabins, seven less than Singapore's, but will also take customers on a 30-minute ride.

On its first anniversary, the Singapore Flyer had carried close to 2 million people.

In November, the Southern Star received another setback when strong winds helped the unfinished wheel break free from its shackles and start turning. Construction workers were sent running from the site.

The consolation for the builders is that Australia's other cities have no plans for a giant wheel. When it opens, Melbourne's will still be the country's first.

But it will likely take the ticket as the longest big wheel project from start to finish. And it will take time to catch up in patronage. The London Eye, the champion, hosts 3.5 million passengers a year.