Government

Newstrack: Is group trying to bring rain forest to the Midwest still alive?

Key developer still identifies himself as part of Earthpark

Iowa Child 2003 number 6. Iowa Enviromental/Education Project

Plans for the Environmental/Education Project are seen
Iowa Child 2003 number 6. Iowa Enviromental/Education Project Plans for the Environmental/Education Project are seen in this artistic rendering released by Porter & Associates. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, persuaded key lawmakers to set aside $50 million for the project which would feature a 4.5 acre tropical rain forest under a 20-story translucent dome, complete with a one million gallon aquarium, and mixed-media theater in Coralville, Iowa. Changes in design have slashed an additional $45 million from the former Iowa Child Project, bringing the total cost of the education complex to $180 million.

Background

CORALVILLE — It's likely been several years since you've heard anything about plans for a massive indoor rain forest in Iowa.

The grand project — praised as a visionary game-changer and maligned as wasteful government spending — faded from public consciousness after federal funding was rescinded in late 2007.

A decade ago, Iowa was primed to have a slice of the Amazon right in the Corridor.

Des Moines businessman and philanthropist Ted Townsend, who also supported the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, founded and became the lead investor in what was called Iowa Child, then The Environmental Project, and most recently Earthpark.

Modeled after the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, the $280 million project would include a four-acre indoor rain forest biome with a 575,000-gallon aquarium to study endangered ecosystems.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley helped secure $50 million in a matching federal grant, lending legitimacy to the notion it wasn't a matter of if but when the rain forest would be built.

In 2005, it was destined for where the Coralville Marriott now stands near Interstate 80 and 380. Coralville leaders danced longest with developers, but ultimately pulled out skeptical of the lack of private funding and shifting answers.

A scaled-down $155 million pitch gained traction in Riverside, Grinnell, Tiffin and Pella. Pella became the preferred location later in 2006, but private funding continued to plague progress.

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Earthpark all but died by late 2007 after the federal earmark was rescinded after developers could come up with the match.

The concept has been virtually non-existent in recent years, except as the punch line in political digs about wasteful spending.

However, the Earthpark still has a pulse ...

What's happened since

One of the chief promoters, David Oman, a longtime Republican political insider who was nominated as his party's candidate for governor in 1998, continues to identify himself as president of Earthpark Development LLC at speaking events and on LinkedIn.

He identifies Earthpark as a business that “consults globally on 21st century eco-centered visitor attractions combining the best features and elements of botanical, science and learning centers, aquaria, and zoos.”

The Earthpark website remains active and has an updated copyright of 2015. Listed office phone and email addresses are also active, although messages were not returned.

According to the Iowa Secretary of State's office, Earthpark Development has an active business filing. A biennial report was filed in July 2015.

On the other hand, Earthpark, which raised more than $7.5 million in contributions and gifts from 2004-2008, liquidated its private foundation status in 2012, according to federal filings.

Oman did not return several phone and email messages. At one point, he answered a call to his personal cellphone saying he was in a meeting, but never called back or returned subsequent messages.

Townsend did respond, saying the questions brought back positive memories.

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“While (Oman) and I are proud of our efforts, we both moved on from Earthpark some years ago and he has not worked for me since,” Townsend said. “I keep Earthpark LLC and the now-dated website barely alive because frankly my ego was involved, and very occasionally I receive an inquiry from outside Iowa.

“Nowhere is there an active Earthpark project. I wish there was,” he said.

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