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Rain forest to be built near Pella

Full financing has not been revealed for Earthpark, estimated to draw about a million visitors annually.

Perry Beeman

Des Moines Register

September 29, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

Earthpark, a combination rain forest, aquarium and education center modeled after an international attraction in England, will be built on a bluff overlooking Red Rock Lake near Pella, officials announced Thursday.

The Earthpark board picked the Marion County site over Riverside, the other finalist.

"The site along the north shore of Lake Red Rock is spectacular," said David Oman, Earthpark's executive director.

Earthpark officials have yet to announce full financing for the project, which organizers estimate could attract about a million visitors a year.

Oman said the deal with Pella and Marion County will help in Earthpark's negotiations for a state Vision Iowa grant that he thinks will bring in at least some of the needed money. "The decision today is huge," for reasons that include added leverage in completing the financial work, Oman said. He said Earthpark officials will meet Oct. 16 to discuss financial arrangements.

Twelve Earthpark board members voted for the Marion County site, three opposed it and one abstained.

Oman said that placing the project, touted for its educational aspects, near the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort bothered some board members.

Glenn Patton, a representative of the development group pushing the Riverside site, said he was disappointed by the decision.

He said the Riverside City Council didn't publicly support the project, which hurt the group's chances of landing the development.

Over the years, Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend and associates negotiated with several cities - including Cedar Rapids, Coralville and Des Moines - to be the home for Earthpark.

The $155 million project is to include a three-section indoor rain forest, 600,000-gallon aquarium, theater, galleries on Iowa's natural resources and food production, as well as trails, education facilities and outdoor prairie.

The final site selection came a decade after Townsend first began looking for a location. Negotiations were hampered at times as cities struggled to come up with $25 million, their share of the costs.

At Riverside, Earthpark would have added to the draw of a new casino. But the city council had many unanswered questions about the city's financial liability.

Pella's more aggressive push included the planned donation of 70 acres by the developers of the Point at Red Rock, a proposed 240-acre residential, recreation and retail development at Red Rock Lake.

The early design work by Grimshaw Architects, which also designed the Eden Project in England, calls for a three-section rain forest. Inside, the attraction would have 1,000 species of plants, birds, fish and reptiles.

Reaction to the announcement Thursday was favorable in Pella, a town better known for its conservative, measured projects and its solid, corporate citizens than for sticking its neck out on projects some consider risky.

Michael Nyquist, 21, of Rochester, Minn., a senior at Central College, said he was amazed by the Earthpark plans. "We're not known for boldness here, but we're serious about sustainability. It's really encouraging to see this," he said.

Said Chris Kayser, 20, a Central junior from Des Moines: "I'm 100 percent sure we'll pull it off."

Patsy Sadler, who has lived in the Red Rock Lake area since before the dam was built, is selling developers about 20 acres for the Point project.

"It's wonderful," Sadler said of Earthpark. "It's such an educational tool."

The area is poised for a development with condominiums perched above the flood level at Red Rock, a new marina and shops.

The Earthpark board met Thursday morning in Grinnell to make the final decision. Former Gov. Robert Ray, the board chairman, along with Oman, board member Philippe Cousteau and architect Andrew Whalley announced the decision.

Cousteau, grandson of noted oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, heads the Washington, D.C., environmental group EarthEcho International. He joined the Earthpark board about a year ago. Whalley designed the Eden Project.

Whalley said he was struck by the rolling hills, lake and views at Red Rock. "When I first saw this site at Pella, I was really taken by its natural beauty," he said.

Said Townsend, the project founder: "It's a more beautiful site than I ever imagined. Our purpose remains unchanged: inspiring generations to learn from the natural world."

Whalley said he hopes a building that will serve as something of a welcome center will open in 2009, a year before the full project is open.

The project will be one of the state's largest attractions, Oman said. It will mean $100 million to $130 million a year in economic activity, 500 construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs, he said.

What to Expect
Financing for Earthpark may not be complete, but that hasn’t stopped developers from dreaming up what the project might feature, including:

• An Amazonian rain forest with approximately 1,000 species of plants, animals, birds, fish and reptiles, including macaws and screaming pihas, electric eels, sting rays and piranhas, red howler monkeys, bats, boa constrictors and iguanas.
• A multi-level aquarium.
• A virtual-reality theater.
• Re-created wetlands and prairie.