20-story 'Aerophare' at White River park would change skyline

December 8, 2008
When the Artsgarden opened at Circle Centre mall in 1995, the glass structure hovering above Washington and Illinois Streets became an instant landmark.

But hovering over a busy intersection could soon take a back seat to floating over White River State Park. If "Aerophare" gets off the ground, downtown visitors will literally be riding up and down in a balloon, within a 20-story, helical tower.

The French-designed structure proposed by two Indianapolis businessmen would not only be an instant landmark, but could give more lift to the city's $3.6 billion visitor and convention industry.

Indianapolis-based AeroPhare America has had initial discussions with management of White River State Park — the firm's preferred location for the $2.5 million structure — about building it there. AeroPhare America owners Tim Coughlin and Tony Sandlin are to present their vision to the park's board later this month.

If their preferred location is shot down, they plan to look at other downtown locations. Meanwhile, they're scouting for sites in North and South America and in the Caribbean.

Coughlin and Sandlin recently became the exclusive distributor in the Americas for France-based Aerophile SA, which has two at regional shopping centers in suburban Paris.

"It looks like the U.S. market could probably handle about 30 of these," Coughlin said of the Aerophare.

Coughlin, a health care management veteran, and Sandlin, owner of Midwest Balloon Rides, are preparing this month for a sales trip to Panama, where a number of cities have burgeoning tourism aspirations.

They say Indianapolis would be a perfect place to demonstrate and operate the Aerophare, with the city's strong tourism and convention trade, White River State Park's collection of attractions, and the park's proximity to downtown. The park already houses the Indiana State Museum, an Imax theater, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, the Indianapolis Zoo, and the NCAA Hall of Champions.

White River State Park Commission Executive Director Bob Whitt could not be reached for comment.

AeroPhare has placed a weather monitoring station at the park to gain information about winds. Readings confirmed that the wind gusts of over 44 miles per hour — above Aerophare's safety standard — would be infrequent.

The parent company, Aerophile, is better known for balloons that are tethered rather than contained within a structure. The company operates tethered balloons at tourist venues, including those at Disneyland Resort of Paris and Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

Strong winds have been the downfall of tethered-balloon attractions across the country.

About a dozen such attractions were introduced in the United States over the last decade, but only two remain. The problem is that strong winds allow a helium balloon to operate only 30 percent to 40 percent of the time, making it hard to attract the 100,000 visitors a year necessary to make such an operation profitable.

"We don't have the volume of Euro Disney to support it," Coughlin said of tethered flights.

Coughlin became familiar with

less-weather-dependent Aerophare while in Paris on business. On that trip, he rode an Aerophare and met with Aerophile's management.

Besides the computer-controlled Aerophare's ability to operate on windy days, it has lower operating costs — as little as $150,000 a year, Sandlin said. The Aerophare would require only a single operator rather than the crew of four or five it takes to manhandle a tethered balloon. Its balloon is filled with compressed air, rather than expensive helium. Insurance is also cheaper, with no chance the balloon will escape its moorings and float away.

The Aerophare backers are also pitching its accessibility advantages. The balloon is entered from ground level, making it easy for strollers and wheelchairs.

The gondola accommodates at least a dozen riders. One version can allow daring riders to dangle feet over the side. The balloon can be made to spiral as it ascends and descends to give passengers a more panoramic view.

At the base of the structure, which measures only about 50 square feet, would be a small theater featuring a history of balloon flight, perhaps with packages tailored to schools.

Admission would be in the range of $4 to $8 a head.

"The whole idea is to keep the tickets fairly modest," Coughlin said.

Such a venue might appeal not only to convention visitors, but to families as well, said Bill Benner, spokesman for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association.

"I think this has big-time potential," he said.

It would have potential in advertising revenue, as well. The outer skin of the balloon can accommodate advertising logos, which can be changed in under two hours, said Sandlin, whose balloons can often be seen flying over Fishers and Geist.

The balloon can also be illuminated at night. The tower can be used to put on a light show, and a football-shaped balloon could be ready in time for the 2012 Super Bowl.

Coughlin said AeroPhare has contracted with Chicago sponsorship firm IEG to analyze advertising revenue potential, which likely would be several hundred thousand dollars a year.

But advertising could be a sticking point in finding a location for the Aerophare. Given the high visibility of the tower, ads could appear too commercial for the sensibilities of White River State Park, for example. Coughlin concedes that could require some negotiation.

On the other hand, the Aerophare may be hard to resist for its cash-generating potential. Coughlin and Sandlin want to strike a revenue-sharing agreement with White River State Park or owners of another location.

They're also planning to foot the cost of the structure. Coughlin said he'll use some of his own money along with that of investors he's already lined up. The pair said French manufacturer Aerophile could make the balloon and its related hardware and computer controls in about five months. They would seek companies in Indiana to fabricate and build the tower. They estimate the earliest the Aerophare could be operating is July.

It's the second balloon venue to come to light in as many months.

Managers of the Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers said in October they're working on a tethered balloon ride that would rise up to 350 feet. It would be part of an interactive exhibit exploring the early days of ballooning in the United States. In 1859, scientific adventurer John Wise took off from Lafayette in a balloon bound for New York City in what is credited as the nation's first air mail delivery.
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