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Grassley "Embarrassed" but Committed

Others Blame Oman for Rain Forest's Woes

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

October 28, 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.]

CORALVILLE -- A Coralville City Council member said Thursday it should be David Oman, and not Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who should be embarrassed about stories involving a planned $180 million enclosed rain forest.

Grassley played a key role in procuring $50 million in federal money for the $180 million project, but he said in a teleconference Wednesday he was embarrassed after a spate of devastating hurricanes and the need for massive federal aid to rebuild the ravaged areas.

"Well, of course, I have been embarrassed by national TV on that very issue because I've raised questions about offsetting money for natural disasters we have to cough up now to help people in need who have been hurt by hurricanes," Grassley said in reply to a question about the enclosed rain forest, known as The Environmental Project.

On Sept. 21, Grassley called for a freeze of federal funding and a careful consideration of where money was spent to help fund Hurricane Katrina relief. At that time he made assurances that a $50 million Department of Energy grant that he helped to secure for the project would not disappear.

While Grassley was unable to comment Thursday, his press secretary, Beth Levine, issued a statement saying that a morning news show on CNBC repeatedly urged Grassley to redirect the $50 million to hurricane relief, but Grassley argued it was best to fund hurricane relief from the years ahead instead of focusing on money appropriated two or three years ago.

"Sen. Grassley wants the Iowa project to succeed and has emphasized that private fundraising, in addition to the federal money, is essential to its success," Levine wrote in an e-mail to the Press-Citizen.

Grassley's stance on how to fund hurricane relief has garnered criticism, including several letters to the editor published in the Press-Citizen.

However, city council member Tom Gill, who has been critical of the project, said Grassley shouldn't be embarrassed about the project.

"He shouldn't have to be embarrassed because he did everything that he possibly could to get this project going," Gill said.

Instead, Gill said Oman, the project's executive director, should be the one who was embarrassed. Gill said Grassley trusted project officials and they have not come through.

"I really have a problem a lot of times with David Oman because it appears that sometimes all he does is collect his salary," Gill said.

Oman said he thought Grassley's feeling of embarrassment was a natural human reaction and understandable because he and his colleagues have to make difficult choices about how money was spent. Still, he said Grassley's support for the project remained.

"Actions speak louder than words," Oman said. "He showed leadership. He believes in the opportunity to create a national environmental facility. We're appreciative of all of his work."

Oman also said Thursday that while they were speaking with a number of organizations for financial support, he said one was looking particularly promising. He said while no announcement would be coming in the next few days, he said he expected to have an announcement of new funding in a few months.

Councilor John Lundell, who joined Gill and councilor Jean Schnake to form a majority opposition to the project, said he felt terrible if Grassley felt any embarrassment about his role. But he was pleased to see that Grassley might be moving to a position closer to his. As for Oman's hints of more funding, Lundell said he was dubious.

"That's great," he said. "But it's nothing we haven't heard before from David."

The Environmental Project is planned to anchor the Iowa River Landing southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue and would include a 4.5-acre rain forest, a one million gallon aquarium and teaching space.

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.