Daredevil Robbie Knievel visits valley

MARIETTA – Bringing daredevil Robbie Knievel to town to jump the Ohio River is just the prelude to something even bigger for the area, according to Marietta resident Wei Sheng.

Knievel, the son of legendary stunt cyclist Evel Knievel, is in Marietta this week to check out the logistics of what would be his first jump from one state to another and probably his last jump in the United States. Tentatively planned for August or September, the event came about as a way to promote Ohio Outdoor Heaven, a massive development project Sheng says can bring hundreds of jobs and many tourists to the area.

“We’re going to be building a $50 million or more destination center,” said Sheng, 52. “This project, we believe, is going to create 500 more jobs.”

It would include an amphitheater, five-star hotel, convention center, zipline, hiking and biking trails, gun and archery ranges, video games and more on 102 acres he owns off the Lower Salem exit of Interstate 77, between Ohio 60 and 821.

Sheng, a self-described “Chinese hillbilly,” came with his family from China to Williamstown when he was a child. He left the area in 1984 but returned in 2004 to care for his mother, Shao Fang Sheng, an artist and student of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He noticed then how the area’s formerly robust industrial base had dwindled over the years.

“When I came back in 2004, it was a different world,” Sheng said.

Now, Sheng hopes to give the economy a major boost with his project. Although it would be outside the city limits, it’s an idea that excites Marietta officials.

It would provide “great job opportunities,” said city development director Andy Coleman. “I think it’s a wonderful idea, hope to see it happen.”

Mayor Joe Matthews is a supporter too, and he’s been involved with discussions about the kickoff event featuring Knievel since the earliest stages.

“There’s got to be a lot of agreements worked out between us and West Virginia,” he said.

Williamstown Mayor Jean Ford said she doesn’t have many details on the event at this point, but thinks it’s an exciting prospect.

“It would be very interesting, wouldn’t it?” she said. “My goodness.”

Sheng said he and Knievel share a mutual friend, and the idea of involving him with the Ohio Outdoor Heaven project was appealing.

“We were thinking of how neat would it be for Robbie Knievel to jump from one state to another,” Sheng said. “He’s never done state to state.”

Knievel, 51, told The Parkersburg News and Sentinel recently that he has not jumped in a year-and-a-half. The Ohio River jump would be his last in the U.S., although he still has designs on hurdling 16 buses in London’s Wembley Stadium.

Knievel arrived in the area Monday night, followed by the man who sets up and designs his jumps.

Sheng said the plan currently is for Knievel to jump from a ramp on the Ohio River Levee at Marietta and land on a barge near the Williamstown side of the river, well within West Virginia territory. He’ll need about 1,000 feet of “runway” to build up speed for the leap, meaning he may have to start out on a Marietta street.

The event will be put on without using any public funds, Sheng said.

“It’s going to create funds for the city because of all the people coming,” he said, noting hotel/motel tax revenue and other purchases the visitors would be making.

Sheng and company hope to have the jump televised, which is one reason a final date has not been established.