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Riverside, Pella finalists for Earthpark

Contenders Met or Exceeded $25M Funding Criterion

Mike McWilliams

Iowa City Press-Citizen

July 26, 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.]

Although Tiffin is no longer in the running, Riverside could know by September if it landed the $155 million Earthpark project.

David Oman, Earthpark's executive director, announced Tuesday that Riverside and Pella are the two finalists for the project, which features an indoor Amazonian rain forest. Developers for the proposed Tiffin site withdrew partly to focus on other projects.

"We've been to both sites multiple times, and we will be at each of them several more times in the weeks ahead," Oman told reporters during a teleconference. "We're at third base heading to home here."

Earlier this year, Earthpark had 16 possible sites to choose from. The list was narrowed down to four including Riverside, Tiffin, Grinnell and Pella. Grinnell dropped out of contention earlier this month.

The finalists were being compared based on a four-part criterion, including ambiance, acreage, access and a $25 million local match. Some in Riverside have suggested using proceeds from the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort to help raise the funding match.

Oman said Riverside and Pella submitted financial packages that met or exceeded the $25 million in local funding. Earthpark's final site is expected to be chosen during the next Earthpark Board of Directors meeting in September.

Darryl High, president of Regency Companies of Eastern Iowa, said Regency withdrew its Tiffin Earthpark proposal partly so the group could focus on its $200 million Villages of Tiffin project. Regency did not back out because of any rift with Earthpark, High said.

"This really wasn't about funding, this was more of a decision about us moving back toward what we had originally planned," High said. "I don't know when Earthpark is going to make their decision, but it didn't appear to us that it was going to be anytime soon so we made the decision that we were going in a different direction."

Tiffin Mayor Glenn Potter said he was not too disappointed to learn that Earthpark would not be built there. Potter said he spoke with Oman about the project early Tuesday afternoon.

"As far as the town goes, financially, we wouldn't need it because it would probably end up costing us money in the long run," Potter said. "I told him that we aren't against it, but we don't have $25 million to donate to it either."

The educational and environmental facility would include a 3.5-acre indoor rain forest with three ecosystems, a 600,000 gallon aquarium, learning and performance space and outdoor prairies and wetlands.

Coralville had been the apparent home for the project for about five years, until December. Project leaders and local leaders couldn't agree on a land transfer ending plans.

Earthpark leaders promise 400 to 500 construction jobs over two and a half years, 150 permanent jobs, 1 million annual visitors and an economic impact of $130 million annually or $10 billion in a decade.

Officials say the project will be funded by a $50 million Department of Energy grant secured by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a $25 million contribution from the town awarded Earthpark and state funding they hope will be between $15 million to $20 million. The rest, they said, could come from debt financing.

Construction is expected to begin next year with the Earthpark scheduled to open sometime during the 2009-2010 school year.