Observation towers as economic & tourism development tools

While preparing my recent post on North American observation towers, an intriguing trend was noticed across the Midwest and Great Plains. There, where topographic changes can often quite subtle, observation towers appear to have become an economic development and/or tourism attraction option being chosen in a number of communities.

Heights Tower in Peoria Heights, Il – Source: peoria.life

Not all that long ago, waterside marketplaces were the all the rage for restoring vitality to downtrodden cities. Then came along aquariums, soccer venues, enormous Ferris wheels, and now…observation towers. For some communities, there is a natural or historical relevance for the tower, while in others the tower it perhaps just a symbol of hope.

Lewis & lark Confluence Tower in Hartford, IL – Source: riversandroutes.com

From the list of the 117 tallest observation towers in North America, here are 45 (or 38%) that were identified in the Midwest and Great Plains:

  • Tower of the Americas (1968) – San Antonio, TX = 750 feet
  • Gateway Arch (1965) – St. Louis, MO = 630 feet
  • San Jacinto Monument (1939) – Houston (LaPorte), TX = 567 feet
  • Reunion Tower (1968) – Dallas, TX = 561 feet
  • Top O’ Texas Tower (2013) – Dallas, TX = 500 feet
  • Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial (1915) – Put-in-Bay, OH = 352 feet
  • Sky Trek Tower (1977) – Chicago (Gurnee/Great America), IL = 330 feet
  • Eiffel Tower Replica (1972) – Cincinnati (Mason/Kings Island), OH= 315 feet
  • Oil Derrick (1969) – Dallas-Fort Worth (Arlington/Six Flags), TX = 300 feet
  • Circuit of the Americas Observation Tower (2012) – Austin, TX = 251 feet
  • Shepherd of the Hills Inspiration Tower (1989) – Springfield (Branson), MO = 230 feet
  • Liberty Memorial Tower (1921) – Kansas City, MO = 217 feet
  • Tower of History (1968) – Sault Ste. Marie, MI = 210 feet
  • Kemah Boardwalk Observation Tower (2004) – Houston (Kemah), TX = 210 feet
  • Heights Tower (1968) – Peoria (Peoria Heights), IL = 200 feet
  • Tejas Observation Tower – San Marcos, TX = 190 feet
  • Summit Park Observation Tower (2018) – Cincinnati (Blue Ash), OH = 153 feet
  • Lewis & Clark Confluence Tower (2010) – St. Louis (Hartford, IL) = 150 feet
  • Main Station Observation Tower (2020) – Dallas-Fort Worth (Grapevine), TX = 150 feet
  • Rastin Observation Tower (2013) – Mt. Vernon, OH = 140 feet (total tower height is 280 feet)
  • Highland Park Tower (1928) – Twin Cities (St. Paul), MN = 134 feet (former water tower)
  • Kalberer Emergent Tower (2015) – Cleveland (Kirtland), OH = 120 feet
  • Prayer Tower (1967) – Tulsa, OK = 100 feet (total tower height is 200 feet)
  • Prospect Park/Witch’s Hat Water Tower (1913) – Twin Cities (Minneapolis), MN – 107 feet
  • Cordova Observation Tower (1998) – Otley, IA = 106 feet (former water tower)
  • Golden Spike Tower (2008) – North Platte, NE = 104 feet
  • Platte River State Park Observation Tower (1982) – Omaha (Louisville), NE = 85 feet
  • Enger Tower (1939) – Duluth, MN = 80 feet
  • Sheboygan Marsh Observation Tower (2009) – Sheboygan, WI = 80 feet
  • Gottschalk Tower (2002) – Kearny, NE = 80 feet
  • Nicollet Observation Tower (1991) – Sisseton, SD = 75 feet
  • Lake Walk Observation Tower (2017) – Bryan, TX = 75 feet
  • Potawatomi State Park Tower (1932) – Sturgeon Bay, WI = 75 feet
  • Pembina State Museum Observation Tower – Pembina, ND = 70 feet +/-
  • Tree Tower (2012) – Dayton, OH = 65 feet
  • Pinicon Ridge Tower (1965) – Cedar Rapids, IA = 65 feet
  • Parnell Tower – Sheboygan (Plymouth), WI = 60 feet
  • Rib Mountain Observation Tower (1959) – Wausau, WI = 60 feet
  • Means Observation Tower (2018) – Kansas City (DeSoto), KS = 58 feet
  • Timm’s Hill Observation Tower (1983) – Tomahawk, WI = 55 feet
  • Falls Park Observation Park (1999) – Sioux Falls, SD = 50 feet
  • Lake Erie Bluffs Observation Tower (2016) – Cleveland (Perry), OH = 50 feet
  • Sooner Park Play Tower (1963) – Bartlesville, OK = 50 feet
  • Clapham Peak Observation Tower (1940) – Milwaukee (Delafield), WI = 45 feet
  • High Cliff Observation Tower – Sherwood, WI = 40 feet

Plus another for which the height is not known:

  • Gathering Place Playground Castle (2018) – Tulsa, OK
Cordova Observation Tower in Otley, IA – Source: destimap.com

Texas leads the list with ten (10) towers represented, Ohio and Wisconsin have seven (7) each; and three (3) each are from Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

Summit Park Tower in Blue Ash, OH – Source: msaarch.com

Based on data from the list above, the number of new observation tower openings peaked during the 1960s, faltered for four (4) decades, and then saw a huge resurgence a half-century later in the 2010s. Since 2000, many of the observation towers have opened in smaller markets like North Platte, NE; Kearny, NE; Mt. Vernon, OH; and Bryan, TX or in suburbs like Blue Ash, OH; Kirtland, OH; DeSoto, KS; and Grapevine, TX.

  • 1910s = 2
  • 1920s = 1
  • 1930s = 3
  • 1940s = 1
  • 1950s = 1
  • 1960s = 9
  • 1970s = 2
  • 1980s = 4
  • 1990s = 3
  • 2000s = 4
  • 2010s = 11
  • 2020s = 1

The reasons for the renewed interest in observation towers may be varied, but certainly the economic development and tourism dollars they draw to the community play a significant part. For instance, the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte draws an estimated 30,000 visitors per year. Furthermore, with increased emphasis in placemaking, a handsome and/or unique observation tower can become a symbol of pride for a community.

Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, NE – Source: visitnorthplatte.com

Another factor is likely the increased interest in nature and the environment over the past few decades. At least 12 of the towers listed above are located in state parks, natural area, preserves, and similar locations.

Lake Erie Bluffs Tower in Perry, OH – Source: mylakeoh.com

In several instances, the observation tower is part of an adaptive reuse of a previous site or structure. Former water towers (Otley and St. Paul) and in one case, a smokestack at a closed glass factory (Mt.Vernon, OH), have been transformed into a new attraction for locals and visitors alike with the 250 acre Ariel-Foundation Park.

Rastin Observation Tower in Mt.Vernon, OH – Source: tripadvisor.com

SOURCES:

This entry was posted in adaptive reuse, architecture, art, branding, cities, civics, economic development, economic gardening, Economy, entertainment, environment, fitness, fun, geography, health, hiking, historic preservation, history, infrastructure, land use, marketing, nature, pictures, placemaking, planning, product design, recreation, revitalization, rivers/watersheds, skyscrapers, spatial design, Statistics, technology, third places, topography, tourism, Travel, urban design, urban planning, walking and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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