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Rain Forest to Continue Working With City
Land Transfer Discussions Ongoing

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 11, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, 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 Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Following the direction of the rain forest project's board of directors Thursday, project leaders will continue to work with Coralville officials on the details of a contract to transfer more than 20 acres of city-owned land.

David Oman, executive director of the project, said the board of the $180 million Environmental Project voted 14-1 during its meeting in Amana to continue working with Coralville.

"The board felt almost to a one that we should continue our discussions, our communication, and we will," Oman said.

The Environmental Project is planned to anchor a commercial and residential development called the Iowa River Landing southeast of First Avenue and Interstate 80. The project would include a 4.5-acre enclosed rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium, teaching space and an outdoor performance venue.

Proponents of the project said it would bring 500 construction and 200 permanent jobs, attract 1.1 million to 1.5 million visitors annually and add $187 million to the state every year. But critics have said project leadership has been lacking and question where the final $90 million in funding for the project would come from.

Oman declined to say whether the vote was an indication that the board had discussed moving the project, and would not say who cast the dissenting vote.

On Aug. 23, the Coralville City Council informally approved a draft land transfer contract that would place conditions on transferring the land. It included basic specifications of the project, fundraising requirements and deadlines and a stipulation that a $50 million Department of Energy grant could not be used on any location other than Coralville.

Two months later, Oman said negotiations still are ongoing, but that both sides are committed to coming to a resolution soon.

The board's decision comes a day after Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced that with his approval, an appropriations bill was passing through Congress that would freeze the $50 million grant until project leaders came up with non-federal matching dollars, excluding land contributions. Furthermore, the money permanently would be reclaimed if the matching funds were not raised by Dec. 1, 2007.

The grant had been bankrolling the day-to-day operations, with about $2.9 million drawn on the grant. Oman said a number of options were being pursued for funding operations, including seeing if project founder Ted Townsend would front more than the $10 million he initially put forth.

The Coralville branch of the project offices closed in November 2002 because of budget troubles, but later reopened when the $50 million grant was secured. Oman declined to say whether the freezing of that grant meant the Coralville branch might be affected again, saying there's been no discussion of it.

Councilor Tom Gill, who has been critical of the project, said he would be open to more discussions but was doubtful anything would come of it. He said he thought at this point it was a matter of who walked away from the table first.

"I'm sure they were looking elsewhere," Gill said. "I think it's just kind of gamesmanship. Who wants to be the one to take the blame for this?"

Councilor John Lundell said he was frustrated by what he called the project leadership's lack of recognizing Coralville as a vital partner. He said he was pleased by the board's decision, however.

"I'm encouraged that they still want to work with us, and I just hope that this means that they have a little more urgency to get back to us on those terms and conditions," he said.