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Time ticks for site decision

Earthpark board to meet Sept. 28

Kathryn Fiegen

Iowa City Press-Citizen

September 19, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The home of a 3.5-acre indoor rain forest might be chosen by the end of the month, officials have announced.

Earthpark, a $155-million indoor educational and environmental facility, will either be located in Pella or Riverside. Board members will have the chance to decide Sept. 28 at a meeting in Grinnell.

David Oman, project director, said the decision is not easy and many board members are using the final days to review information.

"We're still using the time," he said.

The board is committed to taking some action, Oman said, although board members could use the meeting to request more information and not vote.

"I think it will be a healthy discussion," said Robert Ray, former Iowa governor and the Earthpark Board's chairman.

Over the past few months, board members have toured both communities and evaluated them on ambiance, accessibility, acreage, community support and ability to support the rain forest financially.

"It was a pretty thorough process," said Richard Johnson, a board member who was on the three-person site selection committee.

Developers and officials from both communities have put together bids for the park, raising money and promoting their respective existing attractions.

Both have met or exceeded the $25 million requirement for state funding. Oman said the two communities can still add or change their financial packages.

Riverside Casino & Golf Resort CEO Dan Kehl said his family would give $2 million, and the casino would give $10 million during the next 10 years. Pending approval, the Washington County Riverboat Foundation -- the nonprofit group that holds the gambling license -- would contribute $8 million during the next 10 years.

The group will receive 3 percent, or $3.2 million, of the casino's estimated yearly revenue. Under state law, 25 percent of that total must be distributed to nine county towns on a per capita basis, with the rest to applying nonprofit and charitable groups in the county -- which is how the money could be allocated to Earthpark.

Kehl's family also would donate 100 acres of land for the project. The rest of the project funding in Riverside could come from hotel/motel tax or a sales tax rebate from the state.

Glenn Patton, a member of the casino's board of directors, said the casino and Earthpark would make a perfect fit.

"There would be a spillover effect," he said. "They would both thrive off of each other."

The casino expects first-year revenues of $83.3 million and more than 1.6 million visitors.

Pella has remained tight-lipped about its financial package. Eric Woolson, project spokesman for Pella, said competition is hurt in the bidding process when offers are disclosed.

"You don't lay all your cards on the table," he said. "The money is there."

A big draw for Pella is Lake Red Rock, Woolson said. A 70-acre site along the lake would be donated to the project, he said. The site, called the Point at Red Rock, is a part of a 240-acre residential, recreational and retail development.

Jill Vandevoort, director of the Pella Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said 300,000 visitors came to Pella in 2005 and spent more than $30 million in the community.

Initially, 16 communities began the bidding process for the indoor rain forest project, but many dropped out because they couldn't come up with the $25 million. Until last December, Coralville had been the apparent home for the project for about five years. But project leaders and local leaders couldn't agree on a land transfer and rain forest officials began looking elsewhere.

Earthpark leaders expect the project to bring 400 to 500 jobs within 2½ years, 150 permanent jobs, one million annual visitors and an economic impact of $130 million annually.

In addition to the $25 million in local funding, the project would be supported by a $50 million Department of Energy grant secured by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, $15 million to $20 million in state funding and the rest from debt financing.

The park is expected to open during the 2009-2010 school year.