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Ferris wheel pitchman says 'only Rob Ford' listened

When Councillor Doug Ford introduced the notion of a waterfront Ferris wheel for the moribund Port Lands, one person in Toronto wasn't a bit surprised.

John Kowal has talked to countless civic leaders about his money-making proposition for the city. The 77-year-old retired manufacturing engineer says he has been pitching a giant wheel modelled after the London Eye for seven years, but grew discouraged and threw away the papers with his calculations and business plan.

"I got a little tired of just holding onto it and not seeming to get anywhere. Eventually you get disillusioned," he said.

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Then he talked to Rob Ford.

"Everybody that I spoke with thought it was an excellent idea, but no one had enough guts to go ahead with it, only Rob Ford," said Mr. Kowal, a big fan of the mayor.

When the mayor's brother, Councillor Doug Ford, included a Ferris wheel in his vision for the Port Lands, Mr. Kowal knew finally someone had listened. He figures his late-night phone calls with the mayor – they have chatted six or seven times a year since Mr. Ford became a councillor – are what did the trick.

"It would be a real cash cow," he said – the same term used by Councillor Ford when he talked about the appeal of the ride.

A self-described "ideas man" who spent his career in the auto industry, Mr. Kowal has worked out that a giant wheel modelled after the London Eye would run the city about $300-million to manufacture and install. With 30 pods that can hold 40 people each paying between $15 and $20 for a ticket, he says the payback would be swift, even if the wheel was idle over the winter.

Mr. Kowal has hit on a further way the giant tourist attraction could bring in money. He believes each pod could be leased out to major corporations for $5-million for 35 years. In return for the long-term leases, companies could put "tasteful" advertising inside their pod – a little message for the passengers who will be a captive audience during the 30-minute ride.

Between the leasing deals and ticket sales, the wheel would pay for itself, he says, within five to 10 years. If it had a catchy name like the Freedom Wheel, he thinks it could also attract federal and provincial money.

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While Mr. Kowal has always fancied the waterfront as the ideal location for his ride, he thinks Ontario Place or the CNE grounds would be best and worries about parking at Doug Ford's proposed location on the east side of the harbour.

Wherever it goes, he expects the wheel to draw tourists from around the world, giving them one more reason to visit Canada's largest city.

"We could be the jewel of North America," he said.

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