Staten Island Needs More Than a Ferris Wheel to Become a Tourist Destination

July 8, 2015 | Liam Mathews

The New York Times has an enthusiastic report on “Destination St. George,” the city’s plan to build the world’s largest Ferris wheel and an outlet mall near the ferry terminal on the forgotten borough of Staten Island:

“It is the city’s latest and arguably most ambitious, if not audacious, attempt to draw tourists to Staten Island. Workers have begun laying the foundation for the wheel, which will carry as many as 1,440 riders at a time and will be visible across New York Harbor.

Every year, two million tourists ride the Staten Island Ferry, and yet most of them never leave the terminal.

‘What’s great is that people do come to Staten Island; they just have nothing to get off the ferry for,’ said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute. ‘People on the ferry are going to see this huge wheel beckoning and lots of people are going to want to do it.'”

Okay, fine. The world’s biggest Ferris wheel is a claim to fame. There’s no real reason to oppose Staten Island having the world’s largest Ferris wheel unless you live right behind it and it blocks your view of the harbor (which is a valid reason). The Ferris wheel will give visitors to Staten Island something to do, since there is currently nothing to do. But it will not cure the borough’s reputation as a boring backwater. Staten Island needs a full rebranding to go with its shiny new Ferris wheel before people buy Jersey East as a destination.

What is Staten Island known for? In the year 2015, pretty much three things: the Wu-Tang Clan, heroin, and being the place where Eric Garner was killed by a cop who lives on the island (I guess Staten Island is known for four things, if you know that it’s a conservative place where cops live). The top Urban Dictionary entry for Staten Island is written as a “you know you’re from Staten Island if…” and reads in part, “you’ve been cut off by a souped up Honda Accord with earth shaking bass playing. You have chased someone for cutting you off just to give them the finger.” It’s known as an unwelcoming, unfriendly place with an insular culture. If you were visiting from Iowa or France or wherever, does that sound like someplace you want to go?

Obviously, Destination St. George is a big first step toward rebranding the County of Richmond. But a “world’s largest” anything always stinks of tourist trap. And an outlet mall, which has a much better chance of bringing people in than a Ferris wheel, is unlikely to become the kind of world-class, New York City-mythologizing icon the city’s tourism bureau wants it to be. Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Company, the city’s in-house marketing firm, compares Destination St. George to the new Whitney and the observatory atop One World Trade Center. It can’t match the cultural cachet of the Whitney or the symbolic weight of 1WTC. The only way it seems poised to compete with those institutions is specifically as a tourist trap.

A big Ferris wheel will not rescue Staten Island from its also-ran status. Until it gets legitimate public transportation and stops being the place where three castmembers of Jersey Shore call home, it will never be a destination.

Also, this is just weird:

With so many moving parts, the wheel’s planners still face many hurdles. But Rich Marin, president and chief executive of the New York Wheel, said financing is not one of them.

His company is close to raising the full $500 million it will need to build the wheel along with a terminal building and parking garage, he said. Nearly one-third of that sum, $150 million, has been collected from 300 Chinese families that invested with the hope of receiving visas that would allow them to live in the United States.