by Liza Roberts
photograph courtesy of Highwoods Properties
“It’s fun to be a part of downtown,” says Highwoods Properties CEO Ed Fritsch.
He’s admiring the Raleigh skyline from a vantage point four miles north, atop Highwoods Tower. But Fritsch isn’t talking about the company’s downtown office buildings. It’s a 96-foot spire he’s focused on – the one that reaches 538 feet above Fayetteville Street, capping the company’s landmark PNC Plaza.
Five months ago, Fritsch had that spire lit up with $200,000 worth of Cree-made LED lights. Come dark, the steeple atop Raleigh’s highest building now adds a brilliant, silvery geometry to our skyline. But it’s what happens every time the Carolina Hurricanes play at home that has Fritsch most excited. The moment the puck hits the ice, the spire turns unmistakably Hurricanes-red. If the home team scores a goal, the spire becomes a celebratory “swirling hurricane” for a full minute. If the Canes win, it swirls for five minutes. The moment the game is over and the puck is off the ice, the tower goes back to white.
The idea is to gin up some local pride and to bring the city together over the one local team that exists outside the intense rivalries of college sports. “It’s a unifier,” Fritsch says. “We thought it was something everyone could get behind.”
Unsurprisingly, the Hurricanes did, too.
When Fritsch presented the idea to Don Waddell, president of Canes’ parent company Gale Force Sports & Entertainment, Waddell jumped at the chance.
“I think it’s an outstanding idea,” he says. Waddell can see the spire from his office at PNC Arena, so in the unlikely event that he’s behind his desk when the Canes are playing at home, he can keep score by looking out the window.
The arrangement between the two companies is a simple partnership, they say. Waddell says no money has changed hands, but he points out the Highwoods logo is on dasherboards on the ice “and we’re proud to have them there.”
When it came time to put it all together, Fritsch didn’t scrimp. He hired Philips Color Kinetics, the same company that created lights for the Empire State Building, Notre Dame Cathedral, and The Hague. And he didn’t leave anything to chance. Before an Atlanta-based installation team scaled the PNC tower with ropes, like rock climbers, to permanently install the pricey display, Fritsch insisted on a dry run.
“I wanted to know what it would look like.” So he had temporary lights put in place, outfitted technicians on the tower with walkie-talkies, and at 3:30 a.m. one cold fall morning, took to the deserted downtown streets to check it out. Fritsch stood outside the Governor’s Mansion; three colleagues took three other compass points. And together they tweaked the lighting to their liking from every angle, correcting hot spots and dark spots; testing various colors as they walkie-talkied with the folks up on the spire.
Fritsch didn’t go up there that night, but he has before. In fact – amazingly – he helped install the spire himself when the building was completed. Together with a crane operator, Fritsch piloted a 53-story crane that lifted the spire from where it lay on the street below to the top of the 32-story building. “It was pretty cool.”
So are the new state-of-the-art lights, which can turn any one of an infinite number of colors. So far, they’ve shone bright green for the spire’s turn as a Christmas tree in December, they’ve swirled to herald the New Year’s eve countdown to 2015, and they will occasionally be used to commemorate special occasions like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, perhaps, when they could glow pink. “We don’t want to overdo it,” though, Fritsch says. “We want to be deliberate about it, so it has meaning. I just think it’s good for Raleigh.”