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Rain forest contenders down to 2

Tiffin drops out; Riverside, Pella confident they’ll prevail

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

July 26, 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 list of potential sites vying to land the proposed $155 million Earthpark indoor rain forest was whittled to two Tuesday — Pella and Riverside — after developers in Tiffin withdrew from consideration.

    The developers, from West Des Moinesbased Regency Land Services, pulled out because of difficulty raising the $25 million in local funding sought by project officials. Regency came up with about half the money but determined that finding the rest would take more time.

    Final site selection for the attraction, formerly The Environmental Project once slated for Coralville, is expected to be made in September, David Oman, Earthpark executive director, said Tuesday.

    ‘‘We’re now in the place we’ve hoped to be for some time,’’ Oman said.

    Developers in Pella and Riverside have viable sites and have met or exceeded Earthpark’s goal of coming up with $25 million in local funds for the project, he said.

    Local funding is critical. Project officials are trying to unlock a $50 million federal grant that requires matching non-federal funding.

    They also have plans to seek a state Vision Iowa grant and corporate funding.

    The two finalists said they look forward to having project board members visit their sites in coming weeks.

    Riverside Casino and Golf Resort CEO Dan Kehl said he is confident the 100-acre site and financial incentives his group has put together will draw the project to Riverside.

    ‘‘We’re keeping our fingers crossed and hoping this falls into our lap,’’ Kehl said.

    The casino would contribute $10 million by giving the project $1 million annually over 10 years. His family would provide an additional $2 million, Kehl said. Additional revenue could come from the casino’s foundation and from a potential motel tax, he said.

    Pella supporters, too, were confident.

    ‘‘We’ve had a sense all along that Pella is the strongest natural setting for the project,’’ said Eric Woolson, spokesman for Des Moines developers wanting the project in their 260-acre commercial and residential development at Lake Red Rock. ‘‘Pella is also a community that understands tourism and knows the hospitality industry inside and out.’’

    Last year, talks broke down between Earthpark officials and Coralville, the proposed host of the project for the past five years. Grinnell, a fourth finalist for the new site, withdrew earlier this month after the group there was unable to raise local funds quickly enough.

    The four-acre indoor artificial rain forest would include a 600,000-gallon aquarium, exterior prairie and wetland exhibits, and galleries about environmental science issues.

    Backers say the attraction will generate at least $130 million in economic activity annually. Plans call for construction to begin in 2007 with opening during the 2009-10 school year.