An image rendering of the Banshee roller coaster, which opens at Kings Island in April 2014. Photo: Kings Island.
Five years ago, Rob Middleton's construction company began to feel the squeeze as residential and commercial jobs nosedived amidst a sagging economy.
Despite profits that dipped up to 60 percent in 2009-2010, the Mason business owner says he's continued to add jobs and enjoy growth - thanks, in large part, to Kings Island.
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Construction work at the Mason amusement park represents 20 percent of business for R.E. Middleton Construction, the 50-employee company Middleton started as a one-man contractor in 1994.
"Kings Island is the steadiest customer I have," he said. "Our market is still horribly bad, but Kings Island is a place where it is still good. That has allowed my company to grow in the past five years."
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Business is set to get even better after Kings Island announced earlier this month it will begin construction on a new $24 million record-breaking roller coaster designed by Swiss firm Bolliger and Mabillard, or B&M.
Banshee will become the world's longest inverted steel coaster when it opens next April, park officials say. And with 4,124 feet of track and six stomach-churning inversions, it's also one of the priciest, making it the park's single largest investment in its 41-year history.
The project, which will be built with materials produced locally and by Ohio companies, is expected to inject tens of millions of dollars into a state economy that's seen slow job growth in the past year and is holding at 7.2 percent unemployment, according to recent state jobs reports.
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The announcement led U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown to issue a statement applauding the park's economic partnerships with Ohio businesses and the "hundreds of millions of dollars" it funnels into the state economy each year.
"Roller coasters have put Ohio on the map and for good reason," Brown said in a press release issued last week. "Designing and building a roller coaster is an exact science, and Ohio's manufacturing, skilled labor and dedication to excellence is unparalleled."
Jobs require being within '1 millimeter of perfect'
Few know that science better than Ken Miller, an operations manager at Clermont Steel Fabricators. He has 40 years experience building the steel skeletons for roller coasters.
Roller coasters are big business for the Batavia steel plant, which has been the exclusive manufacturer of the world-renowned B&M roller coasters since 1989.
"There's not a lot of people worldwide who can build coasters," Miller said. "You build a whole track, put it together and you have to be within 1 millimeter of being perfect. It takes skill."
The 70-employee company makes several roller coasters a year - fabricating everything from the supports and track to the cars - in its 155,000-square-foot plant.
The company has manufactured several roller coaster "firsts" for B&M, including GateKeeper, which opened in May at Kings Island's sister park, Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio. The $30 million attraction boasts the longest track (4,164 feet), tallest drop (164 feet), fastest speed (67 mph) and most inversions of any wing coaster in the world, among other records.
Clermont Steel also constructed Kings Island's most recent coaster, Diamondback, which opened in 2009. The $22 million coaster broke height and speed records at Kings Island, cresting at 230 feet and 80 mph.
Banshee will require crews working 2,000 hours a week for about 11 months to manufacture the 3 million pounds of steel needed to build the coaster, Miller said.
The ride starts with a 167-foot ascent before plunging 150 feet and pitching white-knuckled riders through a dive loop, vertical loop, zero-gravity roller, two batwing inversions, a second vertical loop and a 170-foot heartline finale.
High-profile projects open important doors
Getting the project off the ground is the responsibility of Maxim Crane Works, a national company with an office of about 60 employees in Wilder, Ky.
The "priority" project is worth up to $300,000 over the next three months for the company, said Crane Specialist Scott Smith.
More importantly, a high-profile project like Banshee often opens the door to other new business, he said.
"You're in the spotlight when you do a coaster," he said. "You have that crane at the park with the company name on it, and thousands of people see it. It's like putting a crane up on I-275 or I-71."
The coaster's construction also will provide hundreds of jobs for steelworkers, electricians, carpenters and other contractors during the traditionally slow winter months, said Don Helbig, park spokesman.
Many of those jobs are well-paying positions, said Gary Gast, vice president of operations for the Adena Corp., the Mansfield company erecting the coaster.
The company will be using certified iron workers, welders and steel erectors - positions that pay an hourly range north of $30 plus benefits - along with local suppliers and subcontractors to build the ride, he said.
"Kings Island is always dreaming up things to do, and it only benefits us and a lot of local contractors," Gast said. "These are good-paying jobs and every job, whether it be at Kings Island or a Walmart, helps someone pay their bills."
Banshee latest attraction to pull in tourist dollars
Banshee comes on the heels of more than $38 million in park investments since 2009 - $8 million more than it cost to build Kings Island in 1972.
Those new attractions, which include a water park expansion, animatronic dinosaur exhibit and new swing thrill ride, have helped pull in new visitors, park officials say.
Attendance at Kings Island grew 2 percent to 3.2 million in 2012 over the previous year, ranking 15th in the nation, according to a report released in June by the Themed Entertainment Association, which represents developers, designers and producers from around the world.
The park's capital investments also serve as an economic catalyst for Southwest Ohio, fueling an $863 million-a-year tourism industry in Warren County, according to the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Their growth is our growth," said Sallie Nally, administrative vice president of the Northeast Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. "Using local labor creates a foundation for economic growth. When your employer's philosophy is to support local, it funnels down to its employees and they buy local, too."
Crane operator Scott Smith says he sees Kings Island's investment as a bellwether of an improving economy.
"Amusement parks rely on disposable income," he explained. "The fact that Kings Island is willing to invest millions of dollars to put up a new ride is a good sign."
By Rachel Richardson, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati.com.
Gannett / Cincinnati Enquirer