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Earthpark, Riverside meet

About 40 attend project question-and-answer session

Mike McWilliams

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 4, 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.]

RIVERSIDE -- For Becky LaRoche, landing the Earthpark project here would be an economic boon and an educational benefit for area children.

But had Rick and Kathy Funk known about Earthpark, and also the soon-to-open Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, the couple said they would not have built their retirement home here two years ago.

"We moved down here for the country life and some quiet," Kathy Funk said. "I haven't heard anyone say, 'I'm going to move to Riverside because of the casino and Earthpark.'"

LaRoche and the Funks were among about 40 people who attended a Riverside City Council meeting Thursday that included a presentation and question and answer session with Earthpark officials. Earthpark announced last week that Riverside and Pella are the two finalists for the $155 million project, which features an indoor rain forest.

The final site is expected to be chosen during the next Earthpark Board of Directors meeting next month.

"I think this is a good, positive opportunity for not only Riverside and Washington County, but all of Eastern Iowa," Riverside Mayor Bill Poch said. "It's an impetus to start a lot of good, positive growth in the area."

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.

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.

"We're not talking about a regional project or even a state of Iowa project," Earthpark executive director David Oman said. "We're talking about a national environmental center. We're here tonight because Riverside has gone through a very, very tough site process."

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 and Tiffin dropped out of contention last month.

Oman said Riverside and Pella were chosen because both cities submitted financial packages that met or exceeded the $25 million in local funding.

Riverside Casino and Golf Resort CEO Dan Kehl said his family would contribute $2 million and the casino would pay $10 million over the next 10 years. The Washington County Riverboat Foundation could contribute $8 million over the next 10 years, and remaining funds could come from revenue from a hotel/motel tax or a sales tax rebate from the state, Kehl said.

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

Riverside City Councilor Mariellen Bower said she's not sure if Riverside would be able to support such a large project such as Earthpark and would like to hear more community input before moving forward.

Some suggested the city hire a lawyer to help guide them through the process.

"I'm just worried that this thing might be a little over our heads," Bower said. "The concept of it is great. I'm not talking against the concept of what these people are trying to do, but we need some community input, and we need to get help from a highly qualified professional."

In the meantime, Poch invited the residents of the town to submit additional questions for Earthpark to the city within a week.

LaRoche, who owns the Kwik N EZ convenience store in Riverside, said the city could use the extra income generated by Earthpark.

"I'm a positive person, and I tend to believe them because they haven't said anything for me not to believe them, but I guess I'm for the future, and I think to grow, you need to stay at it," LaRoche said. "We are very fortunate they are looking at us."

However, coupled with the increased traffic with the casino, Rick Funk said Riverside is headed down the wrong road. Earthpark would be built south of Highway 22 across from the casino and golf resort, which is set to open Aug. 31.

"If I would have known this was going on, I would have never moved down here," said Rick Funk, who moved to Riverside from Iowa City about two years ago. "It seems like it's a matter of the all-mighty buck."

Construction is expected to begin next year with the Earthpark scheduled to open in 2010.

Rain forest plan raises questions in Riverside

Gregg Hennigan

The Gazette

August 4, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    RIVERSIDE — Though Riverside is one of two finalists trying to land the proposed $155 million Earthpark indoor rain forest, people here still have many questions about the project.

    Those concerns were aired last night during a City C o u n c i l meeting attended by about 35 residents that included a presentation by Earthpark officials. The meeting, which began with a 65-minute presentation by Earthpark officials, was not finished as of press time.

    ‘‘There’s a lot of ifs and buts there we need to watch out for,’’ Riverside resident Jim Rose said.

    City council members focused their questions on the financial responsibility of the city.

    Earthpark is requiring $25 million in local funds for the project.

    ‘‘If Earthpark would happen to fail, who does that come back on? The city?’’ asked council member Mariellen Bower.

    Riverside and Pella are finalists for the project, formerly The Environmental Project, a four-acre indoor artificial rain forest that would include a 575,000-gallon aquarium, exterior prairie and wetland exhibits and galleries about environmental science issues.

    Earthpark officials already have had a falling out with one community.

    For five years, Coralville was the presumed site for the project until talks broke down late last year after the two sides failed to reach an agreement over land.

    Final site selection is expected to be made next month.

    Earthpark Executive Director David Oman said he has been to the Riverside site — directly south of the soon-toopen Riverside Casino & Golf Resort on Highway 22 — several times and is impressed.

    Earthpark officials said the city carried little risk because city money would not be used.

    Riverside Casino CEO Dan Kehl said the casino and his family would contribute $12 million toward the $25 million local match. He also suggested the Washington County Riverboat Foundation would consider donating $8 million over 10 years. The rest of the money could come from taxes from future development, he said.

    But earlier on Thursday, Patty Koller, the casino foundation’s vice chairwoman, said the organization has not discussed giving any money to the rain forest.

    It is estimated that the foundation will receive $3.2 million per year from the casino, and board members already have said 25 percent would go to cities in Washington County.

    But Koller, a teacher in Washington, said she was a fan of the rain forest and thought it would meet the foundation’s goals of promoting education and economic development.