HOUSTON - Developers said it would be bigger and better than Astroworld, but a planned mega-theme park north of Houston has turned into a fading dream. Local 2 Investigates discovered millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on the project that has yet to get off the ground.
Hundreds of wooded acres along Highway 59 North near New Caney in Montgomery County were supposed to be full of rides and roller-coasters by now -- or at least construction crews building them.
Instead, you can hardly make out the picture on the faded billboard at the site, touting dreams of the theme park called "Earthquest Adventures."
Two years ago, developers showed Local 2 Investigates plans for the 500-acre amusement park. They promised thousands of tourists and new jobs.
"We're comfortable in saying we'll be successful," said developer John Marlin in 2010. "We didn't spend the time and the money on the effort not to be successful."
In 2010, leaders at the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID) were also confident. EMCID is a government agency that collects sales tax and helps promote economic development. EMCID
CEO Frank McCrady said then that the amusement park "wasn't a gamble, but a gift."
"It's not an if, but a when," McCrady said in 2010.
Two years later, the theme park project is no closer to becoming reality. The developer went bankrupt, and the land was sold. There are no construction plans and no jobs. Many who live in and near New Caney and pay taxes to the EMCID say they're frustrated.
"They got a bunch of people to move into the area with hopes of new jobs and stuff," said James Dean, a grocery store employee. "It ain't happening."
Local 2 Investigates followed the trail of taxpayer dollars used on the Earthquest Adventure project. EMCID collects as much as $5 million in sales tax each year. Financial records provided to Local 2 Investigates through open records requests show EMCID spent at least two full years of those sales tax revenues -- more than $10 million -- on Earthquest Adventures.
EMCID used $7.6 million in bonds to pay for consultants, engineering, attorneys, and other development-related costs. Another $3 million in taxpayer money went to other expenses.
Included in that amount, were all-expense paid trips to tour amusements parks across the U.S. and the world. Documents show McCrady and his family, consultants and their families, district board members, engineers and lawyers all traveled to amusement parks in Florida, California, Las Vegas, The Bahamas, and China.
"You kind of start to wonder if that's a necessary expense to get this project off the ground?" Local 2 Investigates reporter Joel Eisenbaum asked McCrady during an interview at EMCID offices in New Caney.
"Certainly I think anyone would vet that out and say that was necessary," McCrady answered. "I would say from the board's perspective, it was an opportunity for them to...anytime before you make a decision you want to be best informed of what you're looking at."
"Do you need your wife and kids to do that?" Eisenbaum asked.
"Certainly not," McCrady responded. "In those instances, reimbursements were made to the district."
Documents provided in response to open records requests show McCrady paid $9,711.99 to EMCID for the trip to China. Paperwork shows McCrady's wife and two children went on the trip. McCrady sent another $2,000 reimbursement check in April of this year -- five years after most of the trips were taken. Documents provide no explanation for why that reimbursement was paid. That same month, The Tribune newspaper in Humble reported the amusement park trips.
"Taxpayers are on the hook and there is no one looking out for the taxpayer," said Trent Seibert, editor at Texas Watchdog.
Seibert says the amusement park project shows a government agency "rolling the dice" with tax dollars and no one watching.
"The question isn't, 'Are taxpayers assuming too much risk?'" Seibert said. "Taxpayers many times don't know they were taking on the risk."
Along with spending millions in taxpayer dollars on the amusement park project, EMCID also paid $649,000 to a non-profit group called "Earthquest Institute." The group was billed as the educational arm of the Earthquest Adventures theme park.
"Today, as far as I know, the Earthquest Institute is not operating," McCrady said.
The non-profit group now seems to be non-existent. McCrady says the $649,000 was supposed to help the institute raise money and establish a "green, sustainable" image. Local 2 Investigates obtained tax documents filed by Earthquest Institute for 2009 and 2010. Those documents show in 2009, two executives of the non-profit group made more than $140,000 a year for 20-hour-a-week jobs. We also found one of those executives -- the non-profit group's CEO -- was also paid $773,000 working as a for-profit consultant to the amusement park project.
McCrady did not provide specifics on how Earthquest Institute spent EMCID's donations.
"It was being utilized for the institute's expenses," McCrady said.
"Which boils down to the salaries of two people, really?" Eisenbaum asked.
"That's the institute's board decision," said McCrady.
The former CEO of Earthquest Institute recently wrote on Facebook and said the organization stopped operating when EMCID stopped funding it with your money. Earthquest Institute's address is still listed at the same address as EMCID's main office.
Seibert calls the whole relationship between EMCID and Earthquest Institute confusing -- with taxpayer dollars in the middle.
"The way I'm reading the numbers here, it looks like a shell game," said Seibert. "It looks like a way to make sure you can't keep your eye on the bouncing ball and you can't follow the money."
McCrady says the amusement park idea is not dead. He says a new developer has until December to raise enough money to buy the land and start planning construction. This time, McCrady made no promises the same disappointments related to the amusement park wouldn't happen again.
"You can never say it's not going to happen again," McCrady said. "I would never say that in any project. But I think the point where our board is now is we're not starting over. What's in place now with the project will continue to be utilized."
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