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AUGUST 22, 2011 - IN THE NEWS: SKY DIVING TOWER PLAN FOR OCEANFRONT HITS SNAG

Sky diving tower plan for Oceanfront hits snag

By Aaron Applegate
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 21, 2011
VIRGINIA BEACH

It's sky diving without the sky. Or the dive. A free fall without the falling. Kind of like flying, but more like hovering in a glass cylinder suspended in space by the force of a 150-mph wind.

A Beach development company wants to build an indoor vertical wind tunnel near the Oceanfront to simulate the experience of sky diving.

Neighbors are skeptical, and city planning officials aren't sure the idea is right for the Laskin Road corridor.

Developers say people will embrace the $10 million project once they understand it.

"It's fear of the unknown," said Torrey Breeden, executive vice president of The Breeden Co. and an avid sky diver. "It's hard for people to wrap their heads around what a wind tunnel is."

Wind tunnels use giant fans to create winds strong enough to keep people suspended above a mesh net.

The proposed Beach tunnel would be 14 feet wide and 50 feet tall, enclosed in a 70-foot-tall building.

Neighbors say it would not be compatible with homes in the area.

"I'm vehemently opposed," said Arnold Salasky, who lives in a condo near the site. "This would stick out like a sore thumb."

Nancy Johnson is trying to rally her neighbors and civic league in Bay Colony to oppose the project.

"The concept is absolutely fabulous and fun; it's just in the wrong location," she said.

The facility would be a franchise of a chain called iFly, which has wind tunnels in places such as Orlando, Fla., Seattle and San Francisco, Breeden said.

A standard two-minute "dive" would cost $60.

He said it would be quiet and family-friendly, and offer unique entertainment in the evolving Laskin Road gateway, a $34 million city makeover of the road near the Oceanfront.

The project is proposed for a strip of land across from the Harris Teeter supermarket on Baltic Avenue, where a developer had planned to build condos.

That project is no longer viable because of the economy, said developer Jeff Ainslie, who's part of the group that owns the 3-acre site.

He hopes to sell the land to Breeden.

The city's Planning Department is reviewing the project, which would need City Council approval.

"It's an activity that would fit somewhere in the resort area," Deputy City Manager Steve Herbert said in an email. "But it doesn't sound like this particular location would be compatible with the resort-area plan or the Laskin Road gateway plan."

Ray Breeden, company founder, said the location is perfect because of its proximity to the beach, upscale hotels and the large mixed-use project being built by hotelier Bruce Thompson on Laskin Road.

Wind-tunnel customers could include tourists, sky diving enthusiasts and military personnel, he said.

"We don't want to bring something that's incompatible," he said. "This is more compatible than a Wawa, which could slip in there in a heartbeat."

The Breedens have joined forces with Robert Pizzini, a retired Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer and sky diver, to pursue the project.

Part of the business plan is to pursue a Navy contract for sky diving training.

Jason Hartman, an instructor at Skydive Suffolk and a friend of Pizzini's, said wind tunnels are helpful and efficient training tools.

"You get two minutes to do nothing but fly your body," he said, adding that typical sky diving free falls last 40 to 50 seconds. "It helps you hone your skills."

Aaron Applegate, (757) 222-5122, aaron.applegate@pilotonline.com