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Rain forest progress slow going

Coralville project still seeks funds

By Brian Sharp
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Tuesday, July 6, 2004, p. 1

[Note: See also the commentary on this story by Random Mentality.]

Flipping the design, selecting plant life to go inside and crisscrossing the nation in search of the all-important private dollar have consumed the past several months for organizers of a proposed Coralville rain forest and education project.

"While the steps have been deliberate, they've been in the right direction," architect Peter Sollogub said. "Construction, in some respects, has begun."

But there remains something missing.

In January, project chief administrator David Oman talked about a $50 million kick-start from Congress in January as providing a momentum surge, saying organizers would "leverage this, stand on this, show the reality of the project." Oman and Co. have yet to secure any additional financial commitment on the fund-raising front.

"It may be quiet to you; it hasn't been quiet to us," Oman said. "It's been extraordinarily busy ... the most engaged time that we've had to date."

Oman was in New York last week and has four more visits with potential donors scheduled this month, and another in August. The meetings are second, third and fourth follow-ups, he said. But with a "ceremonial" groundbreaking in the fall and a construction start expected in spring 2005, there is little time to spare.

Officials have brought on prominent contractors DM White Construction and Turner Construction to help with planning. Turner, based in New York, has worked on the Tennessee and Shedd aquariums. Other goings-on include having figured out the complicated permitting process. Sollogub expects crews to begin taking soil borings "in the very near future."

As proposed, the $180 million Iowa Environmental/Education Project, planned for the southeast corner of Interstate 80 and First Avenue, would be a 4.5-acre rain forest filling a translucent dome stretching three football fields in length and rising 18 stories. Designs also include a 1 million-gallon aquarium, educational galleries as well as re-created Iowa wetlands and prairies.

Once oriented to open to the north, Sollogub and others have been reworking designs to create a southerly entrance, seen as more welcoming to the Coralville hotel and conference center planned for nearby.

With planning well under way, Oman said the next six months are "critical" for bringing together project components from financing to design.

"Without question, you have to have clarity on almost all the financing by the end of this year to unfold the timetable that I talked about for next year," Oman said. "In a design-build scenario, you don't have to have everything, every detail, designed when you start work, but you certainly have to have your scope, your budget and a pretty good idea of what you're going to build."

For now, founder and Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend is paying for the day-to-day operations.

Officials continue to work through paperwork with the U.S. Department of Energy with an expected release of the federal award this summer. State support remains an uncertain option.