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Rain Forest Project Behind

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

February 25, 2005, p. 1A

[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 -- Residents charting the progress of the $180 million enclosed rain forest project should probably continue using a pencil, or something with an eraser, to mark their calendars.

Environmental Project vice president Nancy Quellhorst said Thursday that a groundbreaking this summer would be ceremonial only and that actual work won't begin until late this year -- about a year after initial projections.

With 2½ to 3 years needed for the project, Quellhorst said the work would be finished in mid to late 2008 -- months past the April 22, 2008, goal.

Quellhorst said it's not unusual in a project of this size for "construction timelines to slip a bit" and that behind-the-scenes progress continues.

"The challenge is that it's taking longer than anticipated. and this is a project that is worth the wait," she said. "We want to do it right."

Project Status

Where the Environmental project is now:

$90 million of $180 million raised.

Educational plan nearing finalization.

Scientific research plan under independent peer review.

What needs to be done:
Businesses and individuals need to be convinced to contribute the remaining $90 million.

Construction plans need to be completed by April -- plans showing specific dimensions and materials, and setting a budget for the outer walls and structure.

But City Councilor Tom Gill has said the Environmental Project would be out if it were up to him because of a lack of communication and frustration with Chief Administrator David Oman.

"It comes down to Oman again," he said. "We're not getting anything from them, and then Nancy gets the job of explaining again something else she can't explain away."

Oman declined comment, referring questions to Quellhorst.

Meanwhile, Mayor Jim Fausett and councilor John Lundell said while they fully support the project, they have concerns about keeping the public interested. Lundell said he's responded to questions by echoing project leaders' promises that more funding was coming soon.

"It just seems that it's been a long time that's the answer that I've had to give," he said. "That doesn't mean that my support of the project has waned."

Lundell and councilors Jean Schnake and John Weihe have said less focus is on the project as the city works to complete a $60 million Marriott Hotel and Conference center slated for August 2006.

"If it wasn't for that," Lundell said. "I think we would be even more fidgety in terms of, 'Let's get moving on that.'"

Gill said he thought if funding progress wasn't made by the time the hotel was complete, more city leaders would place pressure on Environmental Project leaders.

City Councilor Henry Herwig did not return a message left Thursday morning.

Quellhorst said the project has $90 million to $10 million from project founder Ted Townsend, $10 million from an energy deal, $20 million in land and infrastructure from Coralville and, most recently, $50 million from the federal Department of Energy earmarked in January 2004.

Oman has said that funding would be coming through in several months.

Quellhorst said project officials continue to work with businesses and individuals for funding and said most of the process involved building trust.

"You really have to do some friend-raising before you can do fund-raising," she said.

She declined to name those interested, but e-mails obtained by the Press-Citizen through an open records request have mentioned General Electric, Ford, John Deere and Hewlett Packard as potential partners.

Quellhorst said that if money comes through as anticipated, it would be able to combine with present funds to allow the bulk of the project to go through.

But Lundell said he would be hesitant about a scaled-back project.

"If it's not as unique as they have been billing it," he said, "the interest might not be long-standing."