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Officials Make Pitch for Earthpark

John Butters

The Kalona News

June 15, 2006

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

For only $5 million, Riverside could share in a $132 million economic bonanza from the Earthpark project, top executives said at a town hall meeting at the Riverside Elementary School Gym Monday.

Earthpark Executive Director David Oman and other local officials shared their plans with Riverside residents for building a living museum encompassing 300,000 square feet of tropical plants, animals and reptiles and a 575,000-gallon aquarium.

Organizers scheduled the meeting in hopes of gaining additional local support for their $155 million eco-friendly park. Earthpark officials have said that they would need $25 million in local revenues from the participating community to complete the project.

Competition for Earthpark has been fierce. In the beginning, sixteen communities submitted applications for the project. That list has been whittled down to four communities: Pella, Grinnell, Tiffin and Riverside. Oman said his committee would make a site decision within a few weeks.

Standing on the gym floor, Earthpark Executive Director David Oman orchestrated a multi-media presentation on the size and mission of the park and fielded questions from an audience sitting in the bleachers.

Oman was flanked by local officials, including Riverside Mayor Bill Poch, Riverside Casino and Golf Resort CEO Dan Kehl, local developer and casino board member Glenn Patton and Washington Economic Group Executive Director Ed Raber during the event.

The amount required from Washington county would be small, Oman said, due to the $12 million offered by the Riverside Casino and the Kehl family, and the anticipated grant of $8 million from the Casino's charitable foundation. The Casino has also offered to donate 40 acres of land and might help with construction of a parking lot.

The project has political backing from Iowa's senators and financial commitments from government agencies and private foundations. Recently, the international technology and engineering company Siemens said it would provide the park with products, services and design help and would also create and support learning programs for those visiting the facility.

Though Riverside has the natural advantages needed to land the project, including ease of access and proximity to a major university, local response has been tepid. Residents have been fearful that if the project failed, they would be stuck with a large tax bill.

Oman assured residents that this couldn't happen, because the project's construction costs were fully funded.

"Where these projects get into trouble is when they don't have all the money in advance," he said.

As a 501-C-3 project, the park would never get onto the tax rolls, Oman said. If it failed, it would be likely that the company holding the mortgage would take the project back and the county would have no liability.

Residents were also concerned that the community or Washington County would divert TIF money or county revenues to the project.

Oman pointed out that TIF funding is not actual money, but money created for a specific development. How the county might decide to contribute to the project was up to the residents, he said. There were a number of funding options that would not involve additional local taxes.

One revenue source could be imposition of a hotel/motel tax. The tax is frequently collected in communities to foster economic development and is usually paid by people passing through the community.