- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

NEWPORT, Ky. — Pay some green cash, put on a yellow suit, climb a purple bridge and behold a river that still looks brown, even from 150 feet up.

With ticket prices as high as $59.50, this might be the nation’s most pricey toll bridge. Of course, most of the others allow automobiles, but this bridge is for pedestrians only.

The 2,670-foot-long bridge over the Ohio River opened to pedestrians in summer, so now they get to see the view from above as they walk across, attached to a narrow walkway with high-tech cables.

The bridge connects downtown Cincinnati with an entertainment district in northern Kentucky called Newport on the Levee. You still can traverse the half mile across the river for free on a lower level of the bridge, but designers are convinced as many as 80,000 visitors will shell out big bucks each year to take the scenic route higher up. That could mean nearly $30 million annually pumped back into area economies — an impact approaching that of many amusement parks.

“It’s the exhilaration of the height,” says Dennis Speigel, an amusement park manager who developed the climb, modeled after similar bridge climbs in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s the beauty of the view. It’s the way we have structured the whole process, based on entertainment.”

Those seeking the thrill are equipped with a scubalike suit — yellow top, purple legs — that is hooked to a cable on the back to ensure that any stumble is a short one.

At Base Camp, climbers watch a video that relays the tale of a haunted train said once to have passed through the bridge, and a glass walkway on top features one spot that appears to be cracked — an optical illusion.

Still, this adventure isn’t for true daredevils.

“You can’t fall if you want to,” Mr. Speigel says.

The most sophisticated piece of technology might be the $1,200 transfasteners that connect the cables on the suits to a guardrail the length of the walk.

“I thought I’d be maybe a little more nervous up there, and I even have a slight fear of heights,” says Kurt Poppe of Cincinnati, who made the climb just fine with two relatives.

Mr. Speigel says the idea isn’t to make the bridge a haunted house or death-defying roller coaster. It’s to provide patrons something they can’t get anywhere else: a bird’s-eye view of the Ohio River. Once climbers reach the peak, they can ring a bell to signal their accomplishment.

Climbers cross the bridge in groups with a tour guide. Each participant wears a headset to hear the guide relay the history of the buildings and communities on both sides of the river. Along the way, an audio system pumps out music and other sounds. When the guide points out Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds, she plays the radio broadcast of Pete Rose’s record-breaking hit No. 4,192.

The bridge, which has a purple hue, once carried automobile and railroad traffic, but wider bridges have been constructed nearby, and some officials saw it as an eyesore that needed to be taken down. It survived only after Wally Pagan, president of an economic group in the riverfront suburbs, started a crusade to make it pedestrian-only.

“This was going to be dropped into the river and demolished,” says Mr. Pagan, president of Southbank Partners. “So we went to the state of Kentucky and said, ‘Let’s use that demolition money to our advantage.’”

Now there is talk of turning the old train segment into a cable or streetcar system, and Mr. Pagan is convinced the economic possibilities are endless.

Most of the proceeds for the climb part will go back to Mr. Speigel and his investors. He says he anticipates sizable profits and is in talks with four other major cities east of the Mississippi River (which he won’t name) about building similar climbs.

One possible pothole has developed — a $50 million intellectual property lawsuit filed by Thom Jackson, a lawyer in Wyoming, Ohio, who says the location and most of the entertainment ideas were his.

In 2004, Mr. Jackson hired Mr. Speigel’s firm to do a market analysis and feasibility study. He says he was fraudulently baited into signing a contract option that would hand the ownership over to Mr. Speigel for a nominal fee. Once Mr. Speigel determined the bridge was his, Mr. Jackson says, he changed several numbers from his original study to secure investors.

Mr. Speigel says he is confident the lawsuit will be thrown out once the paperwork is reviewed by a judge.

Meanwhile, the climbing continues. The Chamber of Commerce is expecting as many as 40 percent of those who climb the bridge to be out-of-towners.

During a recent outing, Rene Brunelle, a student at the University of Cincinnati, went to the top with Andrea Bond, a friend visiting from England.

“Do you feel important?” Miss Brunelle asked as passers-by gawked at them from below.

“I feel silly,” said Miss Bond, pointing to her yellow-and-purple suit.

OK, so maybe the wardrobe isn’t for everyone, but both women insisted they couldn’t ask for a better view.

• • •

Purple People Bridge Climb: go to www.purplepeoplebridgeclimb.com or call 859/261-6837. Adults $59.95 weekends, $39.95 weekdays; children and teenagers 12 to 15 and college students with a valid ID, $29.95. Children younger than 12 not permitted; those under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

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