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Rain forest site finalists: Pella, Riverside

Each town has raised $25 million to compete for the Earthpark project.

Jeffrey Patch

Des Moines Register

July 26, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

Either Pella or Riverside will host the $150 million Earthpark indoor rain forest once a decision is finalized in September, executive director David Oman announced Tuesday.

At the beginning of this year, 16 communities submitted proposals. In May, the field narrowed to four sites. Grinnell dropped out in early July and Tiffin pulled out Tuesday.

The two communities, each of which have raised $25 million in local contributions, are now preparing to ramp up their competition for the project.

The proposed site in Pella sits on 240 acres of the only private property on Red Rock Lake. Developers plan to build a hotel, water park, condominiums and retail stores around the 70-acre enclosed rain forest and environmental exhibits.

"The Pella site is a combination of terrific natural beauty and a community that understands the hospitality and tourism business very well," said Eric Woolson, a spokesman for the Pella development group.

Pella-area developers declined to provide specifics of how the group raised the required $25 million in local contributions. Woolson said the city of Pella has not pledged any money for the project, but developers are considering seeking a hotel tax.

The Riverside Environmental Group, a separate entity formed by the Riverside Casino and Resort, proposed a 100-acre site near the confluence of the Iowa and English rivers, which the group plans to donate to Earthpark.

Earthpark, along with the developers, plans to ask the Riverside City Council at its Aug. 3 meeting to support the project with new taxation -- either a hotel tax, a local-option sales tax or an admission tax to Earthpark.

"We're exploring different options of what will the city of Riverside support," said Glenn Patton, a casino board member.

To reach the $25 million local matching funds requirement, the group relied on a $10 million donation from the casino, a $2 million pledge and land donation valued at $4 million from the Kehl family -- Dan Kehl is the CEO of the casino -- and an $8 million pledge from the Washington County Riverboat Foundation, which holds the casino's license.

Rob Myers, vice president of Regency Land Services and a leader of the Tiffin group, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.