Earthpark or Pork Forest?

David Oman, the executive director of the Earthpark project, held a conference call with reporters on Tuesday afternoon  For those of you a bit late to the dance, the Earthpark is a proposed indoor rain forest and outdoor environmental education center.  It’s been called the Iowa Child Project and the Iowa Environrmental Project by its backers before they settled on the Earthpark name and dubbed the Iowa PorkForest and EarthPork by its critics.

Here is how Oman responded when a reporter asked him to respond to the critics:  "The project is unique in the United States…

"…It will be a national environmental center and what I would say to them, George, is there is no better time.  With global warming, $80 a barrel oil, $3 a gallon gasoline, the amount of attention that’s being put on environmental and energy issues today is at a level we’ve never seen before and this is a facility that’s much more than a representation of one ecosystem.  People like to dub it as the Rain Forest or look at it in a unidimensional way. This is about a celebration of multiple environments, multiple biomes, a discussion of global envrionmental hotspots and I would add information about the environment here in Iowa — all of that under one roof and what’s around us.  To deliver that kind of project, similar to the Eden Project in the U.K. requires a combination of sources, not just one source, to ever get something like this done so there is a rightful role for some public money as well as private money to bring it off."

Should the public be concerned about the amount of time its taken for you to get down to two locations?  "I would say to you that the public should, I would guess, is appreciative that we’re taking the time to make a deliberate decision.  We had 16 locations that were offered around the first of the year.  We were overwhelmed.  It was certainly heartwarming to learn of that much interest and to find that many communities that felt they would benefit by having a world-class project in their area.  We dealt with every one of those seriously.  I think half of those, eight of those, were personally visited.  Some of them have been personally visited many, many times.  A wealth of information has gone back and forth, as I mentioned, with the development teams and the officials in many of these communities and now we’re down to two.  We’re at the point we wanted to be for quite some time and each of them has met or exceeded our minimum criteria so from our perspective, that’s a position that you want to be in where you can make a good decision looking either way with regard to the project."

I had asked about timelines and why the delay in picking a site earlier, but the answer above was more illuminating.  Later, several reporters asked Oman to lay out the financial details.  Here’s a bit of a summary:  Oman wouldn’t say just how much Pella and Riverside had lined up, only to say both were "right at or over" $25 million. The Department of Energy grant already lined up is $50 million.  Oman suggests the state’s VIsion Iowa program might pony up $16- to $20-million. (This is a puzzling claim since the program’s out of money.  To get that money, the 2007 legislature would have to appropriate more funds to Vision Iowa, a Tom Vilsack program — and he won’t be around but maybe Oman’s banking on a Governor Nussle helping him out the way Senator Grassley did with that $50 million.  Oman was chief of staff to long-time Republican Governor Robert Ray and he once ran for governor himself, losing in a GOP primary.)  Earthpark’s board has announced it’s negotiating with the Siemens company, but Oman said "we don’t have a number pegged to that yet."  Half a dozen Siemens execs are coming to Iowa next week for "another round of discussions" according to Oman. 

"We have a number of other fronts that we’re working on with sort of smaller numbers attached to them from individuals and other institutions to put the money in place," Oman said.  He was asked how much cash in the bank there is, but kept citing the grant money, then dodged a follow-up question entirely.

He guessed construction and start-up costs at $150- to 155-million.  "There’s always the possibility that we might need to take on maybe 10 percent of the budget with debt financing," Oman said.  "…It’s a way to get something done." 

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.


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