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Riverside Unsure on Rain Forest

Will long-awaited answers erase unease about communication?

Gregg Hennigan

The Gazette

September 20, 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 may be a finalist for a much-debated indoor rain forest, but a majority of its five-member City Council said it’s unsure whether it wants the attraction because of poor communication between project officials and the town.

  Council members pointed to the long uncertainty about how much the city would be asked to contribute to the $25 million in local funds required to land the $155 million project, known as Earthpark.

  As council member Randy Sexton put it: ‘‘Until I see some facts there, I just don’t know’’ whether to support the project.

  The council has been waiting since Aug. 3, when Earthpark officials met with the council, for written responses to questions the council had regarding the project.

  The wait ended Tuesday, when answers arrived.

  A copy of the Q & A had not been obtained by press time.

  Without giving specifics, Mayor Bill Poch, a supporter of the rain forest, called the responses ‘‘encouraging for Riverside.’’ The lack of communication is reminiscent of previous problems in Coralville, the assumed home of the indoor rain forest for five years until talks broke down late last year over a failure to reach a land agreement.

  Riverside council member Todd Yahnke said earlier he doesn’t feel the town has been kept well-informed by Earthpark since it joined Pella as a finalist in July.

  ‘‘It’s kind of hard to be for or against something if you don’t know much about it,’’ he said.

  Earthpark’s board will meet Sept. 28 in Grinnell. David Oman, Earthpark executive director, said that while he could not predict whether the board would make a selection, he e x p e c t e d ‘‘there will be some direction from the board on a site.’’ Poch, who talked to Oman on Tuesday, said he thought there may be a few more questions to be answered before the Earthpark board picks a site. As a result, the selection may not come before October or November, he said.

  Poch said he hoped ‘‘we can have one more large meeting in Riverside’’ for all residents before the decision is made to show if there is community support for Earthpark.

  Plans call for a four-acre indoor rain forest, a 575,000 gallon aquarium, exterior prairie and wetland exhibits and environmental galleries.

  Oman said he believes communications with Riverside and Pella has been adequate but understood the need to ask questions.

  ‘‘We’re asking questions both ways,’’ he said in an interview. ‘‘In a situation like this, that’s expected.’’ Still, council members Sexton, Yahnke and Mariellen Bower told The Gazette last week that though they were not necessarily against Riverside landing Earthpark, they wanted more specific information on its financing before offering their full support.

  Council member Brian McDole, who said in a July council meeting that Riverside should ‘‘not give them one red cent,’’ declined comment for this story.

  Adam Richards, appointed to the council Monday night, has said in the past the city should support Earthpark.

  Poch, who as mayor has veto power over the fivemember council, is an enthusiastic Earthpark supporter and expects it to join the new Riverside Casino & Golf Resort in providing a financial boon to the town of about 960 residents. Earthpark officials say the project will have an economic impact of about $130 million annually.

  ‘‘We are finally in a position to have some growth, and with growth we’ll have a better standard of living, it will allow Riverside to be a more family-friendly place,’’ Poch said.

  Bower said with growth come growing pains. ‘‘I have nothing against the concept of it (Earthpark),’’ she said. ‘‘But I just don’t want little Riverside, or the county, to get in over its head.’’ Earthpark is requiring a $25 million local match to help free up a $50 million federal grant for the project. Riverside casino Chief Executive Officer Dan Kehl has said the casino and his family would contribute $12 million, plus land off Highway 22. The rest could come from the casino foundation and a hotel/ motel tax, he has said. Earthpark also plans to seek a state Vision Iowa grant.

  Earthpark may not need city approval to build in Riverside, but it needs the council’s consent to receive a portion of a hotel/motel tax, and a local partner is required for a Vision Iowa grant.

  There is no guarantee the project would receive foundation or state money. The city doesn’t have a hotel/motel tax, though a 7 percent tax will be on November’s ballot, City Clerk Tina Thomas said. Oman said part of the selection process is asking the finalists where the $25 million would come from, in what form and when. The level of interest in the community and the proposed site are the other key categories, he said.
News correspondent Mary Zielinski contributed to this report.