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Court gives EarthQuest developer time to raise money, save project

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Cynthia Calvert

-Questions arise over EMCID,consultant contracts- The Eastern District Court of Texas, which is administering the bankruptcy proceedings of Whitestone Houston Land, Ltd. (the legal owning entity of the EarthQuest / Dino-Park land), has established a multi-step plan to allow for the sale and disposition of the Dino - Park property. On Jan. 23, 2012, the court decreed that the owners of Whitestone have until March 5, 2012, to raise $10 million in capital in order to move forward with a plan to reorganize. Whitestone must also file a Motion to Establish Bid procedures. If they achieve this, they then have until April 6, 2012, to obtain court approval of the bid procedures for a sale of the property and they must conduct an auction to sell the property by April 30 and close on the sale by June 4, 2012. Failure to meet with any of these steps means that the court will allow foreclosure on the land. Frank McCrady, president and CEO of the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID), said in January that Chris Brown, CEO of Contour Entertainment, is now the EarthQuest developer and is actively seeking to raise capital in order to save the project. Brown said, “ We are working to raise the money. However, we have not raised it yet. That is something we are working on. There is a list of bills to be paid first before we can complete the project. A project like this comes in steps. It is a $500 million project and the reality is, that is a lot of money. “This is distinctively different for us - we have partnered financially on a much smaller scale but this is our first time, basically, to be owners on this scale. The money side is definitely a challenge. Outside of the cash issue, everything else is normal for us. We know we can do the project, but raising the money is the big challenge,” Brown added. Brown is also working on another project, in Pahrump, Nevada. The town, an hour's drive from Las Vegas, recently gave Brown, and Donald Allen Holbrook, a consultant paid also by EMCID, thousands of dollars to conduct a study as to the feasibility of building a theme park in that rural area. Brown and Holbrook struck a deal with the town board for a study, which Holbrook said they should consider either an alien-themed park or a park he called Think Tank!, an entertainment project where patrons could drive military tanks through explosive elements. In later meetings, this idea was expanded to become “Adventure Springs,” described in remarkably similar language as the dinosaur-park-turned-EarthQuest-Global-Adventures. Pahrump paid $150,000 to Holbrook and his subcontractor, Contour Entertainment, and signed a contract obligating them to give them thousands more if the study showed the area could support a park, even if the park is never built. Holbrook is a familiar face to many closely associated with EarthQuest. In the October, 2007, the EMCID board agreed to hire the Vercitas Group, which is controlled Holbrook, as a consultant “for services in connection with the EarthQuest project.” The minutes authorized the contract “at a cost not to exceed $25,000 for hourly fees and expenses.” Holbrook presented to EMCID, and to projects before and since, a dazzling resume of scholarly degrees and accomplishments. It’s easy to see why Frank McCrady characterized Holbrook as “an expert in the theme park entertainment venue industry and . . . is recognized across the country as a premier economic development professional. We looked at his credentials and discussed his interaction with other cities and counties in which they all had numerous positive comments on their projects.” But the road that Holbrook has traveled, both to New Caney, Texas, and numerous other towns across the U.S.A., is a long and winding journey, littered with disappointment and controversy. Furthermore, a diligent search by The Tribune of documents, newspaper articles, public filings, websites, etc., paints a vastly different portrait of this supposed ‘entrepreneur extraordinaire’. And it seems that trouble follows Holbrook to almost very town that invites him into their community, and their coffers. For example: Proposed Project - EarthQuest, New Caney, Texas (2007) One of Holbrook's first interactions with EMCID was to prepare a site selection report which he claimed verified that New Caney had been chosen as a prime spot to develop a theme park. Recently, The Tribune asked EMCID for a copy of the 2007 site study. This report purportedly selected the New Caney, Texas area over several dozens of other communities throughout America as the preferred location for the EarthQuest project. It was presumed that such a study would have been prepared by an independent, third-party firm, not affiliated with any of the interested parties in order to preclude any conflicts of interest. What was delivered to The Tribune was a 177-page report prepared by Baker Leisure Group, LLC and being paid for by EMCID at a cost of $125,000. This report makes no mention whatsoever of any ‘national search’ and focuses solely on the Houston area. It includes no recommendations as to whether or not EarthQuest should be built, although it does list potential strengths and weaknesses in the market. It appears to be a detailed demographic review of the Houston region with various pro-forma’s based on the early plans for EarthQuest. By any account, it is a preliminary report based on preliminary assumptions. At this point, the story gets more complicated. The report The Tribune received was not prepared on behalf of EMCID, but for Dino Don, Inc. Dino Don, Inc. is a company affiliated with Don Lessem, once a consultant on the move “Jurassic Park” and the (now former) Director of the EarthQuest Institute. On the cover of the report, Dino Don, Inc. is shown as being represented by Don Holbrook of Holbrook Development Company. Nowhere does EMCID appear in the report, even though EMCID is the only party risking millions of dollars of taxpayer funds to build the project. About the same time, Lessem is quoted on the EarthQuest website as stating that “we,” presumably the EarthQuest Institute (and EMCID?), engaged Holbrook to conduct a national search for a site. However, no national search report has yet been given to The Tribune, as requested. The foregoing facts present a confused situation that is difficult to grasp. Were there two studies conducted? One by Baker Leisure and one by Holbrook? If so, where is the Holbrook national search report? If Holbrook did conduct the national study, why would EMCID allow its own consultant to prepare the report when the same consultant clearly has a vested financial interest in seeing that the project goes forth? The conflict of interests appear obvious. So who does Holbrook represent? EMCID, Dino Don, Inc. or himself? Why did he conduct the national search report? Why was a third-party not engaged for the study? What parties divvied up the $125,000 fee? And last, but not least, where is the national search report that selected New Caney, Texas, over all other potential locations in the United States? Continuing the Holbrook saga, it seems that Holbrook doesn’t travel alone. He clearly has a business relationship with Lessem, as mentioned above. He also has strong ties to Contour Entertainment, the new developer, according to McCrady [Tribune, Jan.11] of the EarthQuest project, replacing Marlin - Atlantis. Holbrook and Contour have teamed up on other proposed theme parks in several cities across the country. However, it may prove telling for New Caney residents that when officials in Pahrump, Nevada, questioned Holbrook in the fall of 2011 about prior theme parks he had completed, Holbrook could not recall a single one. Another disturbing fact is that The Tribune has not been able to get answers as to how much Holbrook or Lessem were paid by EMCID for his EarthQuest-related efforts. A brief analyis of EMCID payments in 2008 and 2009 reveal thousands of dollars spent on airfare, hotels and meals for Holbrook to travel to New Caney as well as for EMCID staff and board members to travel to Nevada to see Holbrook. Notwithstanding, The Tribune has learned from similar contracts made available by other cities in which Holbrook and/or Contour are involved, that their contracts are not simple documents for a single stated amount. In fact, quite the opposite is true. For example, the contract executed with Pahrump, Nevada, to determine if it was a good candidate for a major theme park, was initially presented to the public as a $154,000 agreement. The primary thrust of the initial contract was for Holbrook and Contour to conduct a survey and see if Pahrump was a suitable site. Not surprisingly, the search (conducted by Contour & Holbrook) did conclude that Pahrump was a viable venue. In later town hall meetings it was disclosed to the general public that the contract was not a single-purpose document, but an on-going, multi-phase commitment, with those future phases triggered by specific events. Those future phases will commit the city to almost $900,000 in total fees as additional phases are completed. Furthermore, the contract provides for “Success Fees” should the project be constructed. Contour and Holbrook will receive 1 percent of all investor money raised, and 3 percent of all public funding committed to the project. On a $500 million project, the approximate cost of the EarthQuest park, that stipulation could generate a fee as high as $10 million+ to the developers. Since the Tribune has not received a copy of the contract executed with Holbrook, or the new development agreement executed with Contour, it cannot comment on what terms those contracts may include. Consequently, it is unknown if similar conditions in the Pahrump contract are contained in the Holbrook and Contour contracts with EMCID. The Tribune will continue its efforts to obtain copies of the contract. But Holbrook’s difficulties and inconsistencies don’t end with his work. Resume Problems In the mid- and late 1990’s, Holbrook’s resume included a master’s and a doctoral degree from LaSalle University (Mandeville). But LaSalle was raided and closed by the F.B.I. in 1996. In 2004, the U.S. General Accounting Office determined that LaSalle was a “joke” where “students” simply paid a fee for their “degrees.” Holbrook has since removed the degrees from his resume. Subsequently, Holbrook started listing on his resume three new degrees. These included a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies and a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Economic Planning Geography from Wright State University. The third (new) degree is a Masters of Business Administration in Technology Management from the University of Phoenix. Holbrook further claims, in another resume, to be a doctoral candidate at Walden University. According to the National Student Clearinghouse website at www.nationalstudentclearinghouse.org, Holbrook did get the geography degree and the MBA but never obtained the bachelor's degree in environmental studies or the doctorate. The Tribune has inquired of each university to determine if all of the forgoing degrees were conferred unto Holbrook. The results of those inquiries will be published upon receipt. Holbrook’s employment history over recent years is also troubling. He was hired and subsequently fired in several locations, mired in controversy. In 1996, Holbrook hired by the Port Authority in Red Wing, Minnesota, and terminated in 1998 for questionable spending practices, falsifying his resume, etc. In 2001, he was hired by the Lake Havasu Partnership for Economic Development but less than two years later, his employment contract not renewed. In 2004, Holbrook was hired by the Richmond, Indiana Economic Development Corporation but 16 months later, left in an acrimonious departure after excessive spending, unauthorized expenditures and other questonable practices came to light in the local newspaper. In 2007, Holbrook hired by EMCID as a consultant to the EarthQuest project. Holbrook is clearly a prominent participant in the EarthQuest story, but he is only one of several. Future articles will explore the roles of other individuals. There will also be detailed analyses of the financial implications that have occurred, and will continue to occur, as the full story of the EarthQuest venture unfolds.

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