Friday, August 04, 2006

Riverside residents raise questions on Earthpark

From the Cedar Rapids Gazette by Gregg Hennigan:
Though Riverside is one of two finalists trying to land the proposed $155 million Earthpark indoor rain forest, people here still have many questions about the project.

Those concerns were aired last night during a City Council meeting attended by about 35 residents that included a presentation by Earthpark officials. The meeting, which began with a 65-minute presentation by Earthpark officials, was not finished as of press time.

``There's a lot of ifs and buts there we need to watch out for,'' Riverside resident Jim Rose said.

City council members focused their questions on the financial responsibility of the city. Earthpark is requiring $25 million in local funds for the project.

``If Earthpark would happen to fail, who does that come back on? The city?'' asked council member Mariellen Bower.

Riverside and Pella are finalists for the project, formerly The Environmental Project, which would include a four-acre indoor artificial rain forest that would include a 575,000 gallon aquarium, exterior prairie and wetland exhibits and galleries about environmental science issues.

Earthpark officials have already had a falling out with one community. For five years Coralville was the presumed site for the project until talks broke down late last year after failing to reach a land deal.

Final site selection is expected to be made next month. Earthpark Executive Director David Oman said he has been to the Riverside site -- directly south of the soon-to-open Riverside Casino & Golf Resort on Highway 22 -- several times and is impressed.

Earthpark officials said the city carried little risk because city money would not be used. Riverside Casino CEO Dan Kehl said the casino and his family would contribute $12 million toward the $25 million local match. He also suggested the Washington County Riverboat Foundation would consider donating $8 million over 10 years. The rest of the money could come from taxes from future development, he said.

But earlier on Thursday, Patty Koller, the casino foundation's vice chair, said the organization has not discussed giving any money to the rain forest. It is estimated that the foundation will receive $3.2 million per year from the casino, and board members have already said 25 percent would go to cities in Washington County. $800,000 would represent another 25 percent.

But Koller, a teacher in Washington, said she was a fan of the rain forest and thought it would meet the foundation's goals of promoting education and economic development.