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Earthpark Trying This Again


The Gazette

September 29, 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.]

  Pella it is. Letís hope that this time the people involved with the Earthpark project will do better than they have in the past with meeting deadlines, communicating and following through on what they say they will do. And letís hope they will soon announce they have real commitments for substantial private support for the project. Even though a corporate technology partner, Siemens, was named in May, no information about a financial contribution from that company has been made.

  Letís also hope the folks in Pella are going into this relationship prepared to hold Earthpark officials accountable and to demand that they be treated as real partners.

  Even after seven and a half years of ups and downs for Earthpark ó and continuing skepticism about whether it will really be built ó the proposal to build a 4-acre indoor rain forest and 600,000-gallon aquarium is still a bold one that can mean great things for Iowa. It can draw millions of visitors, spur educational and research opportunities and drive economic development. Itís a project Iowans should be rooting for, as long as its done with fiscal sense and a great deal of transparency, accountability and integrity.

  Skepticism about the project has been earned by its leaders. Its name, what it will include, how many visitors it will attract, the economic impact it will have, how much private money has been contributed, where it will be, when it will open ó all these factors and more have been in a constant state of change.

  The figures Earthpark Executive Director David Oman used on Thursday ó $155 million cost and $100 million of economic impact ó are a bit more than half of what was anticipated when the project was first announced.

  But now that Pella has been chosen, Iowans should try to take a fresh view of the project. And Pella officials should take the lead in determining how and how often progress reports should be made to Iowans.

  Because so much public money is involved (including a $50 million federal grant if sufficient funds can be identified by December and the possibility of future state government support, too), Iowans have the right to know in great detail what is happening with Earthpark.

  Earthpark officials should understand, too, that what many Iowans want to hear is them talking about what they can do for Pella and the state, and not just what they expect from the community of Pella. In a written report to officials in Riverside, which had been considered as a location, Oman wrote about the need for a strong public-private partnership, but he wrote about it in terms of the communityís responsibilities to the project, especially in helping garner the necessary support to get state and federal grants.

  Earthpark officials must show that they understand that the development of this project is a two-way street.

  And in Riverside, where people are both disappointed and relieved that their town wasnít chosen for the rain-forest project, the community should take a fresh look at what they want to happen in the next few years. The $12 million pledge Riverside Casino & Golf Resort made to Earthpark could be redirected to another project the community identifies.