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Officials Question Rain Forest

Angie Meng

The Daily Iowan

October 11, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Daily Iowan, 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 Daily Iowan.]

The deadline for the Iowa Environmental/Education Project to provide Coralville with answers about the proposed $180 million rain forest passed nearly a month ago - and some city councilors are beginning to seriously question the project.

Several weeks before the Sept. 20 deadline, some councilors said if they didn't see significant improvements, they would withdraw their support for the 4.5-acre artificial rain forest, which is to be located near the Interstate 80-First Avenue interchange. However, project officials have yet to give a response.

David Oman, the executive director of the Project, said Coralville and project officials have had a number of conversations since the deadline passed, and they are trying to plan a formal meeting.

"From the project's point of view, time matters," he said. "We are very committed to getting a resolution."

Coralville and the Environmental Project are negotiating over both of the two groups' needs and expectations for the land, Oman said.

"There has been some misunderstanding that it was put in front of us as a 'take or leave,' " he said. "And that's not the case. Both sides have their interests, needs, expectations, and we have to work through all of those in negotiation."

However, Councilor Tom Gill, who has long opposed the project, said since Coralville sent the Environmental Project a contract in August, the city has been in a "black hole."

"We don't know what's going on," he said. "Basically, the whole Environmental Project is depending on using our land, and we're not going to release it."

Gill said the councilors are beginning to worry about where the $50 million federal grant is, how much has already been spent on the project, and if the grant was written for a project in Coralville or for an environmental project anywhere in Iowa.

"This is tax-dollar money," he said. "It should be public information, but no one seems to know anything about it, and the people who do know about it won't tell us anything."

Oman said Monday the $50 million grant was executed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Project is the grantee.

"I don't feel the project should proceed," said Councilor Jean Schnake, who is also concerned about how the grant money is being spent. "The concept is good, but the execution stinks.

"I've reached a point where I don't think the project is going to happen. Everyone set those deadlines, but no one is stepping forward, and there's not a lot that one or two individuals can do."

However, Councilors Henry Herwig and John Weihe said they are willing to give project officials some leeway.

"In my opinion, that deadline wasn't intended to not have any flexibility," Herwig said. "Personally, I don't mind waiting a few weeks. Something of this magnitude needs more time."