Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Rain Forest Vote Still Coming

Contract in Negotiations

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

October 25, 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 -- More than a month has passed since city officials and leaders of a planned $180 million enclosed rain forest began discussing how to hand over 22 acres of city-owned land to the project, but it's still unclear when a final agreement could arrive.

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.

City administrator Kelly Hayworth said project officials responded by the Sept. 20 deadline but negotiations to finalize the contract still are ongoing. He said the most significant sticking points seem to be timeline requirements and consequences for project officials if items are not completed.

Proponents of the project say it will 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.

In August, city leaders presented project officials with a draft contract outlining the conditions for giving the land to the project. Among the stipulations were requirements to maintain the facility as a "museum quality" tourist attraction for 21 years, fully funding the project within six months after the contract was signed and requiring that a $50 million federal Department of Energy grant for the project could only be used to build the project in Coralville.

David Oman, executive director of the project, did not immediately return a phone call Monday, but has said he was committed to getting the contract finished.

Hayworth said once a final version was written, city councilors would have an opportunity to vote on it.

The possibility that the land transfer contract would make it past a vote appears slim. Councilors Tom Gill and Jean Schnake say they no longer support the project, and councilor John Lundell says he only would support the project if there were a complete change in the project's decision-making leadership. That majority could block any action to transfer land to the project.

"I'm disappointed that nothing concrete has happened in the last two years plus and remain anxious to see what's coming," Lundell said.

Gill has said he would like to know whether the Department of Energy grant is tied to Coralville and whether using that money for an alternate project is feasible.

The original "scope of project" document filed with the Department of Energy says the project would be built in Coralville. But Brian Quirke, a public information officer for the department, said that nothing in the grant required the project be built in Coralville. He said project officials have drawn about $2 million on the grant for expenses so far. If the project should ever fail, Quirke said the money would revert to the U.S. Treasury, unless Congress directs otherwise.

Hayworth, however, disputed that the money was not tied to Coralville, saying that the original appropriation documents identified the project for Coralville.

In any case, Schnake said she thought a quality project could go on the land even without the grant money.

"It can be done, just not perhaps on the grandiose magnitude promised by the promoters of the rain forest show," she said.

Finalizing the land transfer contract isn't the only aspect that project officials are working on.

Quirke said project officials had told him that a required environmental assessment would be coming to his office soon. He said the assessment would identify any potential environmental harm and come up with ways to mitigate any damage.

Schnake said she would like to know what's going to happen with the project as soon as possible and to have some resolution. She said the project was similar to a dull headache that periodically erupts.

"It just amazes me that this thing can go on and on and on and nothing seems to happen and no one seems to respond," she said.