Minn. man buys surplus North Carolina light tower for research

Published 9:30 am Thursday, November 22, 2012

RALEIGH, N.C. — To the government, it was a defunct offshore light tower that hadn’t helped ships navigate the waters off North Carolina in more than a decade. To a Minnesota entrepreneur, the platform out in the Atlantic is a launching pad for research into wind power and other technologies.

First, some renovations will be needed at the Diamond Shoals Light Tower, which sits about 13 miles off Cape Hatteras. Its buyer hopes to get his first view of his new property next week — provided, of course, that the landing pad is sturdy enough for a helicopter.

“The pilot says he’s confident it will be OK,” said Dave Schneider of Richfield, who plans to chopper out Wednesday for his first look. “He says if we try to land and it looks shaky, we’re not going to land.”

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Schneider, 56, paid $20,000 for the tower and platform in September after he was the only bidder for it in an auction by the General Services Administration, which sells real estate that the federal government no longer needs. In doing so, he brushed aside the GSA’s 2-year-old inspection that concluded it would cost $2.3 million to renovate the structure that resembles an oil rig platform.

He pored over the 125-page engineering report before deciding it wasn’t in as poor shape as it first appeared. It’s sturdy, sitting in 50 feet of water and with pylons going 150 feet into the seabed. Of the renovation estimate, $1 million is for a boat-winching system and boat, neither of which he needs. Another $189,000 was earmarked for contingencies, and part of the renovation was for labor, some of which Schneider will do himself.

And then, there’s the view.

“When you look at real estate, it’s always location, location, location,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to have a location in the Atlantic Ocean?”

The Diamond Shoals Light Tower was made operational in 1966 to help ships cross a treacherous area nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic. It was automated in 1977, removing the need for a full-time Coast Guard Crew. Its condition deteriorated over the years, and the light was extinguished in December 2001.

Schneider plans to be on the tower for four to five hours Wednesday, using cameras on hard hats to record his tour of each room, including getting measurements for all of it. The living quarters housed below the landing pad include five bedrooms, a galley and a recreation room.

The light tower isn’t the only unusual property available through GSA auctions. For example, the former Stanley Mickelsen Safeguard Complex near Hampden, N.D. — the country’s first anti-ballistic nuclear missile defense system — is up for grabs, as is a cave storage facility in Atchison, Kansas. Some properties never go up for auction, said Lori Dennis, GSA branch chief in real property utilization and disposal in Atlanta.

The government worked with local leaders to turn a former munitions plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., into a Volkswagen plant that makes Passats, she said. “We do get a lot of unusual properties, and we’re traditionally successful at getting rid of them,” she said.

Business-oriented, methodical people tend to buy traditional properties such as federal buildings, while more daring, entrepreneurial types buy nonconventional properties such as light towers, she said.

That’s true of Schneider, who is president of a supplies and logistics that works with government contracts. He also serves as president and CEO of Zap Water Technology, which installs equipment that turns water and salt into an eco-friendly sanitizer and cleaner in meat plants, schools and other places.

He wants to use the tower for research not only by Zap Water, but by other companies. He envisions researchers taking advantage of the tower’s enormous space to study wind turbines, solar power, climatology, metal coatings, marine biology, and other subjects.

“There’s tons of different research industries I would like to bring out there,” he said.

Before Schneider bought the tower, he consulted Richard Neal of Mint Hill, who bought North Carolina’s other light tower two years ago for $85,000. After restoring the tower in Frying Pan Shoals, including adding a hoist so people can get from a boat to the tower without climbing, he opened a bed and breakfast at the site in June. For $300 per person, plus the cost of transportation, people can spend a weekend diving and fishing or just watching movies and sunsets from 30 miles off Southport.

His advice? “Keep the long-term perspective. Fix the things you need to fix first. Keep a healthy dose of patience and explain to people what you’re trying to do. And they’ll want to help.”

Schneider does hope to recruit volunteers willing to help renovate the tower in exchange for some breathtaking views and unmatched fishing and diving opportunities.

He said he’s no different than the person who wants to restore a 1966 Camaro and sees one that’s rusted and dilapidated but still beautiful. “I have the same situation. It’s just a heckuva lot bigger,” Schneider said. “It’s old, it’s rusty and it was made in 1966. But there’s a lot of potential there.”

And as for that landing pad?

“They just said they couldn’t guarantee it was safe,” he said.