Judge calls amusement park 'taxpayer tragedy'
Updated On: Nov 18 2012 11:41:57 PM CST
It's the mega-amusement park that was supposed to be Houston's next Astroworld, but Montgomery County Judge Barb Sadler said the project has turned into a taxpayer "tragedy."
"Ten million dollars have gone to this project with nothing to show for it but renderings and dreams," Sadler said.
The project was called Earthquest Adventures and it was supposed to be built on Highway 59 north near New Caney. Last month, Local 2 Investigates exposed how the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID) spent at least $10 million in taxpayer funds helping develop the amusement park. Five years into the project, the park is no closer to reality than when the plans began. There's no park, no visitors and the developer has gone bankrupt.
Sadler has been the top lawmaker in Montgomery County for 22 years. Like many others, he said he hoped the amusement park would bring excitement, jobs and visitors to the county. However, after seeing EMCID Chief Executive Officer Frank McCrady promote the project, Sadler said he determined the Earthquest Adventures dream had little chance of coming true.
"There was no credit behind this project," Sadler said. "There was no financial statement and no one with the ability to attain this kind of loan. I would never have done this project from day one."
Sadler said he believes taxpayers took on all the risk of the Earthquest Adventures park. Along with the $10 million in taxpayer funds, Local 2 Investigates discovered EMCID donated $649,000 to a now non-existent, nonprofit group called Earthquest Institute. The nonprofit was described as the educational arm of the theme park.
Now, Local 2 Investigates has learned even more public money was given to yet another non-profit called the East Montgomery County Development Corporation. The development corporation then loaned $225,000 to amusement park's developer and $295,000 to the nonprofit Earthquest Institute. McCrady is also executive director of the development corporation. None of the money loaned has been paid back.
"It was nothing more than a shell game," Sadler said. "It was a way to increase fees, increase salaries and increase cash flow to a developer who knew it would never happen."
Local 2 Investigates also obtained a promotional video for Earthquest Adventures paid for by EMCID. The video costs taxpayers $15,000 and includes interviews with McCrady, EMCID board members, paid consultants and the park's designer.
"I still think we have a project that is viable," McCrady said during an interview with Local 2 Investigates in September.
McCrady said a new developer has until December to raise millions of dollars to buy the land and start the process of planning and building the amusement park project again.
However, the developer doesn't want to tell you how that's going -- at least not when Local 2 Investigates asked him about it. In an email to McCrady obtained by Local 2 Investigates, Chris Brown of Contour Entertainment writes, "I have no interest in providing any details of these private business matters to the press. I would request that you respect our efforts to work in a private manner during this time."
Sadler said if he or his commissioner's court would have made the same amusement park deal, they'd have been voted out of office.
Local 2 Investigates will keep monitoring any progress by the new developer.
If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477).
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