New questions arise about amusement park project

Taxpayer money given to non-profit group related to theme park

HOUSTON - There are now more questions about the mega-theme park project that was supposed to be Houston's next Astroworld. The new concerns center around a non-profit group related to the project that received hundreds of thousands of your tax dollars.

The dream amusement park was called Earthquest Adventures and a large section of land along Highway 59 North in New Caney was supposed to be where it all came true. But there are no roller coasters or theme park attractions built there, and those who live in the area say there's little reason to believe they'll ever see them.

"It's not going to happen," said New Caney resident James Dean. "If it was, it's about a year overdue."

The East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID) spent more than $10 million taxpayer dollars to develop the project. That included $649,000 in donations made to a non-profit organization called Earthquest Institute. EMCID leaders describe the group as the educational arm of the theme park.

"The effort needs to be made in bringing in the theme park, and not focusing on the institute at this point," said Frank McCrady, CEO of the EMCID, during an interview.

"We say don't focus on the institute," said Local 2 Investigator Joel Eisenbaum. "But you've already funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars their way for 'bupkis'?"

"I guess you could say that," McCrady responded.

The $649,000 is gone and the non-profit institute is not even operating. Tax documents obtained by Local 2 Investigates show the organization used much of its money for salaries. In 2009, the non-profit CEO and treasurer each made more than $140,000 a year for 20-hour-a-week jobs. Local 2 also obtained signed contracts showing those two executives would each be paid a $250,000 bonus if the institute actually constructed a building inside the theme park.

Local 2 Investigates found the majority of non-profit's board of directors -- who eventually made decisions on how taxpayer dollars were spent -- also had connections to the for-profit theme park project.

The non-profit's CEO was a paid consultant for the park. The non-profit's treasurer worked for the theme park's developer. That developer, the elected chairman of the EMCID, and the founder of the park itself also served on the non-profit's board of directors.

"It all just seems very much in-house and in the family," said Leah Napoliello, an investigator for the Houston Better Business Bureau. "No one is really there governing the organization and saying where the money was going."

For two years, Napoliello says the BBB has been asking Earthquest Institute for information on how it used the money. So far, Napoliello says she's received no answers.

"Most non-profits are very clear and open about how they are spending their money," said Napoliello. "They say, 'This is where we are doing this educational program; we're helping these clients.' It's usually very straightforward, upfront and to the point."

Napoliello said she's never seen a government agency be the primary donor to a non-profit group like this. She also says she's never seen non-profit performance bonuses as high as the bonuses listed in the Earthquest Institute contracts.

McCrady couldn't provide specifics on how the non-profit institute used the taxpayer dollars or even the organization's status moving forward.
"Once again, I don't know," McCrady said. "Earthquest Institute is a non-profit that operates on its own and as far as I know, the board has not be recomposed."

The theme park's first development group went bankrupt. McCrady a new developer has until December to raise enough money to buy the land and start the building process over again.

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