Councilor wants rain forest deadline

Other members say cutoff is not warranted

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 11, 2004, p. 1



CORALVILLE -- As far as one City Council member is concerned, the clock is ticking on the proposed $180 million rain forest project.

Council member Tom Gill said Wednesday that if the project doesn't announce private investors in 60 days, the council should look at other ways to use the land slated for the Iowa Environmental Project.

"Everybody is on board with this," he said. "It's just how long do we have to wait before we get an answer on private funding?"

However, the other four council members don't share his point of view, and the chief administrator of the project said he thought Gill probably wasn't fully aware of the project's status.
Gill
Land deal

The city of Coralville on Wednesday secured the final nine lots necessary for redevelopment of the old industrial park, of which 30 acres are set aside for the Iowa Environmental Project. The lots, belonging to Jere and Ruth Wissink of Holiday Wrecker Service Inc., originally were set to be condemned. Because of a settlement, the city will pay the Wissinks $1.35 million and another $1.9 million will go to the wrecker business.
 
 
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The project, which would stand on 30 acres southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue in Coralville, would include a 4.5-acre rain forest. The translucent caterpillar-shaped structure would stretch three football fields long and rise 18 stories. It also would house a 1.2 million-gallon aquarium along with research and teaching space.

So far, the project has received commitments of $10 million from project founder Ted Townsend, $50 million from a Federal Department of Energy Grant, $20 million from Coralville in land and infrastructure and $10 million from an energy deal. Nearly four years after being pitched for Coralville, $90 million still is needed.

Gill said he was frustrated that, so far, Townsend is the only private investor.

"The telltale thing is if this is such a great project -- and I don't want to knock the project -- why don't we have other people jumping on besides Townsend?" Gill said.

David Oman, chief administrator of the project, said project officials are working on a number of fronts with potential investors, involving many follow-up meetings. Oman said he thought Gill was simply unaware of progress made on private financing. He said he would be willing to fill Gill in on those prospects.

"I'm disappointed that Tom isn't current," Oman said. "And we need to see to it that he is, and I'm sure that when he's updated, I know that he'll have a better understanding of status and might acquire some patience."

However, he said those prospects were not yet ready for public release because it would betray a confidence with potential investors.

"You work with people over time," Oman said. "You build relationships and trust. That's what we're doing."

Oman said that because the project has to work on the terms and timetables of potential investors, he wouldn't hold the project to a 60-day deadline.

"I'm not going to play the numbers game," he said. "We have a core team of directors from the board, staff and volunteers who are working long hours every day on this project."

And the other four City Council members said Oman shouldn't have to produce private investors in 60 days. Council members Henry Herwig, John Lundell, Jean Schnake and John Weihe said Wednesday that they wouldn't force a 60-day deadline.

Weihe and Schnake said with the city having so much on its plate, they didn't feel a sense of urgency.

"We've lived up to our commitment," Weihe said. "We've acquired all the property. My feeling is I'd like to see some action, but I hadn't put it into those words."

Lundell said he wanted to hear more from project leaders first.

"I think we're all getting a little anxious to hear more about how they're coming with their fund-raising and what the timetable is," he said. "Once I hear that, I might be willing to set a deadline."

But Gill said he is not hearing or seeing enough from the project leaders, and that's part of why he would like a 60-day deadline. He said Oman has assembled a good advisory board and has done a good job selling the project but hasn't produced results with funding.

"It goes back to the administration," he said. "It goes back to David Oman. He's got to produce something. Frankly, putting people on boards is not producing."

He also said Oman's contact with the council has been sporadic. Schnake said the council had not received an update recently. But Oman said Nancy Quellhorst, vice president of the project, was responsible for community relations and that he'd heard favorable comments about that interaction.

Gill said it is possible that the project will come out with new funding sources within 60 days.

"If that's the case, that's great," he said. "I'll eat my words."

Still, Gill said he wants results to be confident in the project and Oman.

"He can talk all he wants," Gill said. "He still has to have some money coming in."