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And the Winner Is . . .

Rain forest expected to pick either Pella or Riverside today

Gregg Hennigan

The Gazette

September 28, 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.]

  The site of an indoor rain forest is expected to be named today, and the mayor of Riverside, which, along with Pella, is a finalist, said that does not bode well for his town.

  ‘‘If they make a decision, I don’t think that would be in Riverside’s favor,’’ Mayor Bill Poch said Wednesday.

  He said that’s because the city still has questions regarding what public money would go toward the $25 million in local funds required to land the $155 million project, known as Earthpark. By contrast, Eric Woolson, spokesman for Des Moines developers wanting the project in Pella, said he was planning a news conference in Pella in case that site is chosen. He said he hoped representatives from Pella, Earthpark and the developers would be present.

  Earthpark’s board of directors is to meet in Grinnell this morning to decide about the project, which would include a 4-acre indoor rain forest, a 600,000-gallon aquarium, exterior prairie and wetland exhibits, and environmental galleries. A news conference in Grinnell was scheduled for about 12:30 p.m. Construction is to begin in 2007, and the attraction would open in 2010, according to an Earthpark press release. Earthpark Executive Director David Oman declined comment Wednesday. Leah Schomburg, of the Trilix Marketing Group in Urbandale, which works with Earthpark, said the board intends to announce a site today.

  But after years of controversy and uncertainty surrounding the project — which has been linked to Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Coralville — Riverside City Council member Mariellen Bower was dubious.

  ‘‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’’ she said of a decision being made. ‘‘They don’t have a great track record.’’

  A majority of Riverside’s five-member council said as recently as one week ago it is unsure whether it wants the attraction because of poor communication between project officials and the town.

  The city last week received a response to a list of questions it had submitted to Earthpark about the project’s financing, but Bower said questions remain.

  With community support and local financing being two main selection criteria, Riverside officials said their lingering concerns may hurt their chances today.

  Poch, a strong project supporter, said he has not spoken to anyone from Earthpark for about 10 days.

  Woolson said he does not have a sense how Earthpark’s board will vote. His group, proposing a 260-acre commercial and residential development at Lake Red Rock, has not made its $25 million local match package public for competitive reasons.