The Great Wheel is a bright addition to the Seattle skyline, a 175-foot Ferris wheel on Pier 57 overlooking scenic Elliott Bay. But years ago, it was only Hal Griffith’s dream.
Hal was leasing Pier 57 from the Port of Seattle to operate several restaurants but had bigger dreams of how to revitalize Seattle’s downtown waterfront, including building a Ferris wheel to entice visitors. The city turned down his application, so he focused on building other ventures on the pier in addition to the restaurants, including a carousel, an ice cream shop, and a bakery.
In 2010, construction of pedestrian walkways and other waterfront development caused Hal and his family to worry about disruptions keeping visitors away from the pier. “So we thought, ‘Well, maybe this is the time to try to get the wheel up,’ ” says Hal.
He and his sons did research on what type of wheel to buy and where to build it, from visiting manufacturers to determining the best placement at the end of the pier. Finally, the city approved permits for the idea.
Finding the right financing was crucial for construction, but Hal says their bank at the time “was not too enthused about the wheel idea. It was a little too foreign to their thinking.” Then he found Wells Fargo, which was “very supportive of the idea,” he says. “Through further discussion, we became, in essence, collaborators in putting the wheel up.”
Wells Fargo’s Brian Bilanski says, “We were able to make the Griffiths’ dream a reality by working closely with them and coming up with a strategic plan. By looking at their existing financial assets, which included restaurants and properties in Washington and California, we could support the financing both in the short term and long term. Many banks took a very narrow approach that focused exclusively on the valuation of just the Ferris wheel.”
The Great Wheel opened to the public in June 2012.
From the Gold Rush to today
Pier 57 was built near the turn of the 20th Century as a warehouse operating when Seattle became the “Gateway to Alaska.” Hal says it later became a fish processing plant and once that was obsolete, a retail space.
In the 1960s Hal was leasing the pier from the Port of Seattle. Hal’s son Kyle says he and his brother grew up working with their father, doing every job imaginable, from waiting tables to cooking.
They saw a future for Pier 57 beyond restaurants. Hals says the pier was so dilapidated that it was slated to be torn down by the city. “By refurbishing the pier, we showed the city and its leaders that there was potential with the pier and we were able to keep it,” says Hal.
Hal eventually bought the pier from the city in 1989, and with his assistance, Hal’s two sons run Great Western Pacific, the company that operates Pier 57.
The pier extends off of Seattle’s Waterfront Park, which is operated by the city, and has become a destination for tourists. Kyle says, “We’re very proud of the pier, and we work hard to make it a place that people want to visit. It’s transformed what was an industrial area to a people-friendly, family-oriented amusement park right in the heart of Seattle’s waterfront.”