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Rain Forest Education Plan Outlined

Finances, timeline still in flux

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 21, 2005

Nicholas Johnson's blog on this story.

[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 virtual reality trip to the center of a molecule or the surface of the sun. Computerized kiosks customized to the needs of tour groups. A complete school with a 4.5-acre rain forest in its back yard as its laboratory.

Ted Stilwell, director of learning for The Environmental Project, said Wednesday the proposed $180 million enclosed rain forest slated for the Iowa River Landing project southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue would be a haven for educators.

"We have lots of ideas and lots of possibilities," Stilwell said.

But still no firm financial plans.

Coralville Councilor Tom Gill, who has called for progress in 60 days in raising the $90 million still needed, said Stilwell had great ideas. But that's not what concerns him.

"We can't move forward until we know exactly what their financial status is and whether this project is going to go through or not," he said.

A draft application for $20 million in funding from the Vision Iowa program is now under review by the city of Coralville. Originally, the application was planned for $40 million, but Nancy Quellhorst, vice president of the project, said less money is now available.

The project would be seeking Community Attraction and Tourism funds, which receives only $12 million a year until 2010. Any award from those funds would be spread out over several years.

The application would probably be filed near the July 1 deadline, Quellhorst said.

Quellhorst said she didn't know how the application would be received, but she said she was optimistic.

Quellhorst said she was comfortable with the smaller application because the project was expecting several prospects to come through with funding and make up for it.

In fact, Quellhorst said several months ago the project moved to its third stage of fund-raising by hiring professional development firm Gonser, Gerber, Tinker & Stuhr of Chicago.

She said project officials planned only to move to a professional fund-raiser to fill in the final funding gaps. That means even though project officials haven't announced it, they're expecting enough donors to come through to pay for most of the project.

According to the draft application to Vision Iowa, the project is in conversation with eight Fortune 100 companies, two of which are considering terms and level of participation.

The development firm has successfully helped 95 percent of clients reach fund-raising goals, Quellhorst said, and has dealt with projects of more than $100 million before.

She declined to say how much the project was paying the firm.

Meanwhile, the project's completion timeline continued to loosen. The draft application stated that the project's design team "estimates opening of the project could occur in 2008 or 2009."

The original stated goal was April 22, 2008 -- Earth Day. In February, Quellhorst said completion was more likely for mid-to-late 2008 because a planned ceremonial groundbreaking and start of work were set back by about a year.

Quellhorst said a 2009 completion wasn't for sure and that with a $180 million project, flux in the timeline was to be expected.

"There's a lot to be done; this is a tremendous project," Quellhorst said. "I'm delighted by what this can do for the community, but I also hope that the community will recognize that this is an incredible undertaking and will be patient."

Stilwell, meanwhile, met with University of Iowa students Wednesday in a symposium discussing how the project could help reform and support science education in Iowa.

He said some educational aspects were still conceptual and would change as the project developed. These included computer kiosks that could adapt to fit a person's education level. For school groups, the terminals could fit into a school curriculum or be used for science experiments, measuring light or carbon dioxide levels.

Other possibilities would be a virtual reality space or the option to camp in the rain forest for an estimated $42 a night. A school on the site would be well down the road, Stilwell said.

He said other plans were more solid, including providing training in teaching methods to current and aspiring science teachers.

He said they're already looking for grants, with the plan to start outreach in fall of 2006. He said at least several hundred thousand dollars would be needed to start up, but that it would need to ramp up to several million dollars a year to keep running. The hope, Stilwell said, was that some revenues from the project could go to education.

The project also is working with partners -- yet to be named -- to create a national report on the state of science literacy in the United States.