Feds looking into amusement park project

Local 2 Investigates the future of Earthquest Adventures

Author: Joel Eisenbaum, Investigative Reporter, Anchor, jeisenbaum@kprc.com
Published On: Jan 30 2013 01:39:35 PM CST   Updated On: Jan 04 2013 10:59:01 PM CST
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Texas -

The now infamous fading sign along Highway 59 north in New Caney still touts the mega-theme park that has never come. Local 2 Investigates has learned the proposed amusement park is the center of a federal criminal investigation into the government agency that used taxpayer money to fund its development dreams.

Last fall, Local 2 Investigates exposed how the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID) spent more than $10 million tax dollars to help develop Earthquest Adventures.

Developers said Earthquest would be an environmentally-friendly, bigger and better version of Astroworld -- including rides, a water park and education. EMCID spent millions of dollars on everything from bonds to amusement park trips. EMCID also made large donations to a now defunct non-profit associated with the park and gave more than $500,000 in loans to other groups related to the park. Those loans will likely never be paid back, because the developer went bankrupt and the land for the park was sold.

Now, even more tax money is going to attorneys hired because of the federal criminal investigation.

"Anything related to that should be responded to by our attorneys," said Frank McCrady, chief executive officer of EMCID.

An attorney hired by EMCID said the U.S. Attorney's office in Houston served subpoenas to EMCID's elected officials and employees all regarding Earthquest. Employees of private companies involved with the project also say they've been interviewed by investigators. Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney's office would confirm or deny any investigation.

"I had an interview with the people when that all first started," said Chris Brown, president of Contour Entertainment.

Brown was once the lead planner and designer of Earthquest Adventures. Now, he's the new developer in charge of the effort to build the amusement park in East Montgomery County.

"I'm obviously an optimist. I've been pushing this thing along despite all kinds of challenges and problems since we were originally asked to move it forward," Brown said.

During a recent EMCID board meeting, Brown said the Earthquest project is still alive because the financial markets have improved and he believes investors will line up to fund the $500 million idea.

The improvement district board voted to give Brown another six months to secure that funding and then buy the land to start the project over again.

"I'm very confident this is going to happen," Brown said. "That's why I keep spending money every month, like an idiot. hoping it's going to happen. If we only raise $150 million, we're going to do a project. We want to raise the whole $500 million. I believe we can."

"We have a developer who has a mission to accomplish," McCrady said after the meeting. "Certainly, we are very confident and are placing our faith and trust in the reports we're getting back from our consultants."

As of Friday, EMCID is not spending any new tax money on the project. The new developer is paying for all the costs associated with the pre-development. If the project breaks ground and gets final approval, Brown said his company would pay back around $8 million to EMCID.