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Riverside wants "hard copy" answers for Earthpark questions

Mary Zielinski

Washington Evening Journal

August 4, 2006

"We will get a packet of questions together," said Mayor Bill Poch, "and we would like you to write down the answers. We want hard copy."
[Note: This material is copyright by the Washington Evening Journal and Golden Triangle Newspapers, 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 Golden Triangle Newspapers.]

      Proponents of the $155 million Earthpark Thursday painted a rainbow of opportunity, complete with a proverbial pot of gold, in a move to get city support for the rain forest/science learning center.

      After more than two hours of visual presentation, discussion and public comment, the mayor and council asked Earthpark to put it in writing.

      "We will get a packet of questions together," said Mayor Bill Poch, "and we would like you to write down the answers. We want hard copy." He also asked if the answers could be done within a week after receiving the questions.
      Earthpark CEO David Oman said, "It will not be a problem."

      The meeting was the first time Earthpark and the city council officially met to discuss a project for which Riverside and Pella are the two remaining candidates of an initial 16 communities. The plan, which started as the Iowa Child Project, later became the Environmental Project and late this spring was named Earthpark.

      The long-sought project was to be located in Coralville, but that ended last December, and Riverside found itself on the possible site list.

      A key issue is Earthpark's seeking a $25 million community contribution, as well as needing a governmental entity-a city or county-to apply for a $20 million Vision Iowa grant.

      "If Riverside is not supportive, it probably will be going to Pella," said Dan Kehl, CEO of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort that is offering a $12 million to the project. In addition, Kehl has suggested that the Washington County Riverboat Foundation, the non-profit group that will have $3.2 million to distribute to non-profit and charitable groups in the county, give $8 million at the rate of $800,000 for ten years.

      However, the Foundation board at its July 19 meeting, said the Earthpark would have to apply "like everyone else," and objected to Chairman Tim Putney's suggestion that special committee be set up just to deal with Earthpark.
      Thursday, the Earthpark proponents outlined what they termed a "creative package," that could bring 1.2 million visitors to the area and generate an estimated $130 million economic impact.

      Part of that would be additional sales tax, including a hotel/motel tax, revenue that could generate $6.8 million referred to by John Norwood of Earthpark as "incremental revenue Riverside city would receive about $1.6 million of that.

      Earthpark proposed a "sharing arrangement" involving a three-way contract with the Earthpark, the city and the Environmental Development Group. The latter includes the Kehls and the casino and holds the option for the site occupied by River Products, a quarry operation, on Highway 22 directly south of the casino.

      Although Norwood spoke of the generation and use of "future dollars," he also said, replying to a question from council member Todd Yahnke about the sharing agreement, "It is hard to predict the future."

      Council members, though, made it clear Riverside did not have money to put into the community match, which is needed for the $50 million in federal funds, said Oman.

      Several of the nearly 50 attending the meeting spoke during the public discussion, including resident Jim Rose who urged the council when it came to an agreement, "Hire a good lawyer." He referred to the city's two years of dealing with the casino, "where not all was understood. Be cautious, that's all I'm saying."

      There were others, including Becky LaRoche, who asked the city to consider "What will it cost us and what we will get. It will cost the taxpayer nothing," and added that the casino "will give three times the city's budget. Half of nothing is nothing, but half of something is something."

      There were others who spoke in favor of the project, but advised the city to proceed carefully.

      Resident Don Prybil asked Oman if the same presentation is given to Pella, "that it also is a good site."

      "Sure," replied Oman. "Both are good, although different."