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Pella gets nod for Earthpark

Perry Beeman

Des Moines Register (online at 12:30 p.m.)

September 28, 2006

At a Glance

[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.]

Pella has won the 10-year derby to host Earthpark, a combination rainforest, aquarium and education center modeled after an international attraction in England.

The Earthpark board today picked Pella over Riverside, the other finalist.

Over the years, Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend and associates had negotiated with a number of other communities — including Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Coralville — over where the park would be located.

The $155 million project is slated to include a three-section indoor rainforest, 600,000 gallon aquarium, a virtual-reality theater, galleries on Iowa’s natural resources and food production, outdoor trails, education facilities and outdoor prairie.

The final site competition came more than a decade after Townsend — who also founded the already operational Great Ape Trust of Iowa in Des Moines — first began looking for a spot. The negotiations were hampered at times by local communities’ struggle to come up with their $25 million share of the financing.

Earthpark changed names, architects and project concepts along the way.

Earthpark still has not announced full financing for the project, which would draw an estimated million visitors a year.

After 16 communities expressed some interest in the late going, the choice came down to Riverside and Pella.

At Riverside, Earthpark would add to the draw of a local casino that offered support, but the city council there had many unanswered questions about the city’s financial liability.

Pella’s seemingly more aggressive fight for the project centered around the donation of 70 acres by the developers of the proposed The Point residential, recreation and retail development at Red Rock Lake, a project spanning 240 acres.

Pella’s population is just under 10,000. Riverside’s: 928.

Earthpark projects a million visitors a year. The project would create 400 to 500 jobs during 2.5-year construction, 150 permanent jobs. Ripple effect of 2,500 more jobs around Iowa.

The early design work by Grimshaw Architects, which also designed the Eden Project in England, calls for a three-section rainforest under several foil-covered enclosures. Inside, the attraction, something of a science-literacy center, would have 1,000 species of plants, animals, birds, fish and reptiles, including macaws and screaming pihas, electric eels, sting rays and piranha, red howler monkeys, bats, boa constrictors and iguanas.

At a Glance
What: Earthpark. The development will include an Amazonian rainforest in three enclosures, a multi-level aquarium, virtual-reality theater, galleries on Iowa prairie, geology and food production, outdoor trainsl and recreated wetlands and prairie.

Inside the rainforest: Approximately 1,000 species of plants, animals, birds, fish and reptiles, including macaws and screaming pihas, electric eels, sting rays and pirahha, red howler monkeys, bats, boa constrictors and iguanas.

Cost: $155 million, not including land.

Location: Pella

Remaining question: Financing is incomplete. Pella is the latest investor, pledging $25 million as part of the site negotiations. The U.S. Department of Energy provided a $50 million grant that must be matched. Earthpark founder Ted Townsend spent $10 million. An out-of-state company offered $10 million in-kind. Earthpark has been negotiating for a state grant and continues to approach private investors. Details have not been announced on an arrangement with Siemens, which is providing technology for the project.

Operaitng budget: $13 million to $15 million

Jobs: 400 to 500 during 2.5-year construction, 150 permanent jobs. Ripple effect of 2,500 more jobs around Iowa.

Projected attendance: 1 million annually

Economic impact: $130 million a year

Run by: Earthpark is the latest name for a venture created by Iowa Child Institute. Former Gov. Robert Ray chairs the board. David Oman is executive director.


1995: Ted Townsend of Townsend Engineering, one of the most successful private manufacturing companies in the state, proposes turning Des Moines’ Wakonda Club into an education center for teaching young people health and employment skills. The proposal would require a land exchange between the country club and Polk County. Both turn down the idea.

January 1997: Des Moines leaders, led by Townsend, propose an educational center on 25 acres on the southwest edge of downtown Des Moines that would include the world’s largest simulated rainforest. A 10-acre, 20-story-tall dome would contain the forest, an elementary school and an aquarium. Included in the project would be a large-screen Omnimax theater, a science center, a 600-room hotel, an office building and other education facilities. The cost is estimated at $330 million. Dubbed the Iowa CHILD Campus (using an acronym for Center for Health in a Loving Democracy), the facility could attract 1.4 million visitors a year, a consultant says.

January 1999: After a lukewarm reception in Des Moines, Iowa Child organizers take their idea to Cedar Rapids for a $280 million rainforest/aquarium project.

December 2000: Coralville bids for the $280 million project, and Cedar Rapids backs away.

September 2001: Project cut to $225 million.

2003: U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., secures $50 million grant for the project, which is trimmed to $180 million.

December 2004: Project leaders say they will break ground in 2005.

2005: Project leaders get in battle with Coralville over land transfer. Design work continues.

November 2005: Grassley wins congressional approval of a ban on the project using any more of the grant money until the $50 million is matched with private cash or in-kind services. Bill gives the project two years to raise the match or the grant or lose it.

May 2006: Earthpark arranged Siemens as the techology provider for the project.

Summer 2006: Earthpark announces that Pella and Riverside both have pledged the $25 million match required by local backers.

Sept. 28, 2006: Board picks Pella as the site