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Grassley to Limit Rain Forest Funds
Senator Orders Matching Non-Federal Money

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 10, 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 -- Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, plans to hold back a federal allowance to the rain forest project until it earns more money of its own.

According to a news release from Grassley's office, Grassley introduced the language into the annual appropriation bill for energy and water projects for fiscal year 2006. The legislation would prevent the $180 million Environmental Project from receiving anymore of a $50 million federal Department of Energy grant until project officials raise non-federal matching funds.

The federal government also will reclaim the remainder of the $50 million grant if the matching money is not secured by Dec. 1, 2007.

In the news release, Grassley said he wanted the project to succeed, create jobs and become a tourist destination and leading center for environmental education.

"However, the project will never become a reality if the majority of the funding isn't raised from private benefactors and other sources," Grassley said. "Until the project can demonstrate its ability to raise that money, I can't let federal tax dollars be frittered away."

City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said Grassley's actions seemed reasonable, but Hayworth thought the success or failure of the project in Coralville would come to a head well before the 2007 deadline as city councilors consider the land transfer agreement.

"I don't think that the deadline is important, because if the money can't be raised in that time per-iod, I would guess that the project is dead anyway," he said.

The Environmental Project is planned to anchor a commercial and residential development called the Iowa River Landing southeast of First Avenue and Interstate 80. The project would include a 4.5 acre enclosed rain forest, a 1 million gallon aquarium, teaching space and an outdoor performance venue.

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.

The last funding for the project was the $50 million Department of Energy grant secured in 2003. Project officials have spent about $2.9 million of the $50 million energy grant, according to the release.

Coralville officials have committed $30 million in land and infrastructure, although a majority of city councilors now oppose transferring the land to the project under its present leadership. According to Grassley's news release, the language of the appropriation bill excludes land donations as being part of the matching funds.

That leaves the $10 million initially from project founder Ted Townsend.

Executive director David Oman said officials would continue to operate and design the project in preparation for construction. He said Townsend's money was one option for bankrolling daily operations in lieu of the federal grant. But he said there are other options that they were pursuing.

Oman said Grassley continues to support the project. Other energy-related projects in the 2006 appropriation bill also would be required to match federal dollars, and Oman said it was fair that the project be held to the same standards.

"The timeframe on procuring funds to match the federal grant is reasonable," he said. "We believe this step will accelerate some discussions on funding and bring others to a conclusion."

Grassley spokesperson Beth Levine said the conference committee approved the appropriation Tuesday. Levine said the appropriation passed the house 399-17 Wednesday, and was expected to pass the Senate today before going to President Bush.

City councilors Henry Herwig, Tom Gill, Jean Schnake and John Weihe also supported Grassley's action. Councilor John Lundell declined comment Wednesday.

"It doesn't hold too big a gun against anyone's head, but it does put in place a date certain," Weihe said.

Herwig said he could understand Grassley's action, given criticism of the senator since the grant was secured. He said the move Wednesday just added a new sense of urgency.

"I don't know that it's suddenly a new wrinkle," Herwig said. "I think it's just something of a more forceful underlining of something we've been talking about for a while. Obviously we need to get rolling."

Gill, who was one of the first to publicly call for an end of a partnership between the city and the project, said Grassley did the right thing.

"This thing could have sat for years, and he's very responsible, and I appreciate everything he's done," Gill said.

Schnake said for the project to meet the deadline, it would take a dramatic change in fundraising. She said Grassley's action could affect the momentum of the project either way -- spurring it forward or grinding it to a halt.

Schnake said project officials taking federal money without results was rightly coming to an end.

"The credit card has been cut in half," she said. "And we'll reinstate your account when you can prove your credit worthiness."