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Earthpark Site List May Be Trimmed

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

June 14, 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.]

With two of four finalist communities having secured the necessary $25 million funding to land the mammoth project most commonly known for its indoor rain forest, some are calling for the list to be trimmed.

"Some people have recommended that ... they would like to see the field narrowed," project director David Oman said Tuesday. "That is up to the board to decide. No decision has been made on winnowing."

In March, a site was expected to be named for the environmental, educational concept now called Earthpark. Instead, Pella/Lake Red Rock, Riverside, Tiffin and Grinnell were named as competing finalists.

At that time, a final selection was scheduled for mid-May. The announcement has since been on hold pending the arrangement of a meeting between the project's 23-person board of directors, which is expected in June.

Whether that meeting will unveil a final selection now is unclear.

"We need to understand these offers ... I don't know how much time the board is going to want to take with that. It could be one meeting or two," he said.

Oman said project officials are reviewing details of each site, such as topography and potential building layouts, and board members may want to revisit the sites before making a decision.

"I would be elated if we could (name a site) by the end of June, but I'm also a realist," Oman said. "We should err on the side of being thoughtful. We should give every opportunity to ask questions and answer questions."

The Riverside group recently disclosed their land offer and the sourcing for their $25 million, while the Pella/Lake Red Rock group has remained silent.

"While we are in the midst of competition we are going to keep that to ourselves," DML Development spokesman Eric Woolson said Tuesday. "(DML) has put together a very credible package. At this point, they are going to keep that between the site selection committee and ourselves."

Riverside Casino and Golf Resort CEO Dan Kehl will dip into his own pocket if it will land Earthpark across the street from his casino.

Kehl's 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.

"People were concerned that if this doesn't succeed it would end up on the backs of county tax payers, but the way we have financing set up, it would not be a burden to county tax payers," Kehl said.

The land gift would be more than 100 acres, which would include 40 acres for construction and wetlands and quarry lands, Kehl said.

He also is proposing a $4.1 million parking facility for Earthpark, and complimentary development including a 2000-seat amphitheater, an extreme sport indoor/outdoor water park, a hotel and a mixed-use development.

"We think it's a great project, a national tourist attraction. It belongs here in the Corridor. It will put Iowa on the map," Kehl said. "We are trying to create a southern anchor to the Corridor."