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Councilors in the dark on rain forest progress

Project officials say they're open to setting goals

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 12, 2005

And see, Adam Pracht, "Government monitors use of $50M grant," below.

[Note: These stories are copyright by the Press-Citizen, and 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 -- If the business partnership between Coralville and the rain forest project were a dating relationship, the couple's conversation would have grown stale, and they wouldn't be able to remember their last deep discussion.

Those are the sentiments of Councilor John Lundell, and he's calling for city and The Environmental Project leaders to sit down and have a "heart-to-heart" -- getting a full update on the project's progress and finances. Lundell tried to recall the last time the council received a detailed update from the project.

"I don't remember at all how long it's been," Lundell said. "So that tells you something."

The Environmental Project is planned for 30 acres southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue. It would include a 4.5-acre rain forest under a translucent caterpillar-shaped structure that would rise 18 stories. Also included is a 1.2 million-gallon aquarium along with research and teaching space.

Lundell wants the meeting to happen after a $60 million Marriott hotel and conference center breaks ground in April, he said. He would like a clear timeline with benchmarks for tangible results to come out of the meeting. If progress is not made by those dates, he said the city should evaluate its options.

While he thought it unlikely and a last resort, Lundell said he would not rule out ending the city's relationship with the project. But he said at the moment, he's too "in the dark" to make that decision.

"Let's use up all the options we have to build it as it was originally proposed in Coralville," he said. "And if that doesn't happen, then decide what we have to do."

Lundell is not alone in his desire for some clear results from the $180 million project, which has remained halfway funded since it was awarded a $50 million Department of Energy grant in January 2004.

Councilor Tom Gill said that the land represents prime real estate and that it was going to waste unless project details firm up soon. He said the city should begin looking at options, such as a commercial area.

"I know it's a long project; it takes years to do it," Gill said. "But I'm uneasy not knowing what that end of the puzzle is."

Groundbreaking and completion dates have been pushed back by up to a year, with completion now expected for mid to late 2008.

Councilor Jean Schnake said Lundell's proposal should be considered, while Gill said he thought the idea was a good one but needed to go further.

"John is in the right direction," Gill said. "My feeling is that we should move a little quicker."

On Nov. 11, 2004, Gill called on the city to ask for a funding announcement from the project in 60 days, after which the city's $10 million of land and planned infrastructure would go to a different project. The rest of the council did not support the deadline.

Now, another two months past Gill's deadline, he said the city council should decide priorities and push for action even before the Marriott breaks ground.

Mayor Jim Fausett said the project was going well but agreed that the council could use more information.

"To date, we haven't really been involved, and the real problem is we don't know exactly what the plan is," Fausett said.

Councilor John Weihe said he would give the project more time before going to setting benchmarks, and Councilor Henry Herwig said he thought a meeting was unnecessary.

"I don't think that we need to call them to the carpet," he said. "They're aware of the problems as well as anybody."

Herwig said with such a large project, it wasn't practical to set "arbitrary deadlines."

"It's a project that's extremely difficult and the scope of what they're trying to raise funds for -- it's not like a pancake weekend," Herwig said.

Environmental Project Vice-President Nancy Quellhorst said project leaders would be open to Lundell's proposal.

"In terms of establishing some benchmarks together, we are very comfortable with that," Quellhorst said. "We consider the city part of our team."

And while Gill has characterized the relationship between the city and project officials as rocky, Quellhorst said the two are as united as ever.

"I have to say that I feel very good about our relationship with the city," she said. "If and when the time comes that we have issues with the city, I'm confident we can resolve them."

Government monitors use of $50M grant

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 12, 2005

The $50 million Congress approved more than a year ago for the Coralville rain forest can only go to the Iowa Child Foundation. And the foundation would have to justify any major changes -- moving the $180 million project out of Coralville or going significantly past completion in 2008, for example.

And should The Environmental Project and the Iowa Child Foundation fail to bring the project to fruition, the area wouldn't see any more of the grant money. It would simply return to the United States Treasury.

Still, according to Rich Freeman, project manager with the Chicago office of the Department of Energy, which granted the money, project leaders still have a certain amount of freedom in spending the money. They are able to draw the money from an electronic fund as needed, he said.

But Freeman also reviews the project every three months and sees that it is holding to its original scope of project proposal.

"Even though they have access to those funds, it's not carte blanche," Freeman said. "We know what they're doing with them."

The scope of project proposal includes the basic specifications, the cost of the project, the location of the project in Coralville and basic schedule.

Freeman said moving the project would be unlikely because an environmental assessment required considering alternate sites and the project stayed with Coralville. He also said slipping schedules were not unusual in a project of this size.

"It's accepted. That's OK," Freeman said. "We just have to keep that documented and tracked so we know what's going on."

Although the grant was for $50 million, $48 million is available to the project because of standard government deductions.

According to the scope of project, about $1.5 million of the grant would go to administrative expenses -- including staff salaries and legal, rental and travel costs -- about $17.1 million would go to architectural subcontracts, $29.6 million to construction subcontracts and $146,500 for contingency.

Freeman said the project has drawn about $1.1 million so far, but he didn't have detailed information on exactly how that money has been spent.