Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Surely She Didn't Intend It To Be an Ill Omen

Linda Detroy Alexander

The Gazette

December 3, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

    Five years ago, then-Cedar Rapids Mayor Lee Clancey said something that in hindsight offered a revelation of things to come.

    ‘‘For every ounce of excitement, there seems to be an ounce of complication as well. I guarantee this project will test your persistence.’’

    She was speaking about the selection of Coralville as the site for The Environmental Project’s rain forest attraction, which Cedar Rapids hoped to land. She wished Mayor Jim Fausett and Coralville good luck. Now, it sounds like Coralville will wish the project good riddance. And that’s too bad. Unlike a host of naysayers, I think the project is really cool. It can do wonderful things for Iowa’s economy and provide a remarkable educational venue. I’d go, more than once.

    Coralville, where the nation drives by, is the best location. So I hope, in vain it seems, that City Council members and Environmental Project leaders will work out their differences.

    After reading the letter Fausett got recently from Robert Ray, the former Iowa governor who is chairman of The Environmental Project Board of Directors, I wouldn’t blame council members if they kiss this project goodbye. The letter said, in essence, give us more land with no strings attached and promise us $40 million in further support, or we’ll take our rain forest and go somewhere else. The tone of the letter implied that the failure of the relationship is Coralville’s fault. Nanny nanny boo boo.

    It seems Ray has forgotten that Cedar Rapids never made a formal proposal offering a site, or that Environmental Project folks chose to relocate from the 80-plus-acre site Coralville originally offered to a site they knew was only 22 acres. Or that, to date, despite assurances that fund raising was progressing, project leadership has in hand, in private money, exactly zip. (There is a $10 million pledge from project visionary Ted Townsend and a ‘‘letter of intent’’ for $15 million from an anonymous major energy company).

    It does look like The Environmental Project is fashioning itself an exit so it can relocate to Dubuque, where gambling revenues could provide the financing needed to retain $50 million in federal funds and put the project in the running for a state Vision Iowa grant. Voila, that pesky need to raise private money disappears.

    Both sides have made important missteps: Coralville should have no say in which architect the project hires or control over the project budget. Project leaders should come through on the original commitment to provide one-third of the funding in private support and be forthright in communicating with city officials, who have an obligation to taxpayers to verify real progress.

    Maybe there’s just too much rancor on both sides, but I hope all involved give this relationship one more go. The project’s greatest hope for success lies in being located near the intersection of Interstate 80 and the Avenue of the Saints, and Coralville stands to gain significant jobs, development and revenue. It would be smart, if there’s a chance of survival, for a Coralville city staff person to be appointed as project liaison to sit in on all project meetings from now on.

    Fat chance. I wonder what Fausett will say to the mayor of Dubuque.