Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Rain Forest Wants Show of Support

Letter: Without City's Assurance, Project Will Look at Options

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 24, 2005

And see "Text of Governor Robert Ray's Letter of Demands to the Coralville, Iowa, City Council"

[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 -- Leaders of a planned $180 million rain forest project want to know that city officials are behind them or they will look at other options.

A Friday letter from the chairman of the project's board of directors, former governor Bob Ray, to Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said project leaders want assurances in writing that city staff and council members are behind The Environmental Project, among other terms.

In the letter, Ray says that "time is of the essence" and requests a response to the terms on or before Dec. 2.

"If you are unable to meet the above criteria and timeline, the board will have to proceed with exploring other alternatives," Ray said in the letter.

The project would anchor the Iowa River Landing development southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue and would involve building an enclosed 4.5 acre rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium and create teaching and arts performance space.

In addition to wanting written support from Fausett and all city councilors, Ray's letter said project leaders wanted at least 25 acres with a preference of 30 acres -- compared to the 22 acres the city is offering -- and a site farther south from the interstate.

City administrator Kelly Hayworth said that from the beginning, city leaders have said they would help raise about $40 million from a variety of local sources, and Ray's letter stipulates that project leaders want assurances that can happen.

Finally, Ray's letter states that the group also wants the land transferred under a set timetable and "free of any encumbrances."

"More than ever, our board and team believe there is a sense of urgency in determining, once and for all, whether the proposed Iowa River Landing site and the project's relationship with Coralville, will work in the near and long term," Ray said in the letter.

In August, city leaders sent a draft term sheet to project leaders, outlining the conditions under which the city would transfer the land to the project.

Those stipulations included holding project leaders to the basic specifications, setting timeline and fund-raising requirements and tying strings to a $50 million Department of Energy grant, preventing the project from using the money in a location other than Coralville. Since the city sent the terms sheet, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced legislation to freeze that grant until project leaders get matching funds.

Project executive director David Oman, vice president Nancy Quellhorst and Ray did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday afternoon. Fausett also was unavailable.

Hayworth said the letter should lead to a face-to-face meeting and that he wasn't sure whether the terms from the project would be reasonable until that meeting took place.

"I think that they want to get this completed as quickly, as bad, as we do," he said. "I think they're indicating a willingness to get it completed in discussions one way or the other."

Councilor Tom Gill said project leaders would not receive written support from him under the terms Ray's letter sets out, specifically the request for more land, wanting the land free of the city's proposed encumbrances -- which Gill called essential -- and wanting city leaders to ensure $40 million in fundraising.

"How can we raise $40 million when they haven't raised a cent?" Gill said.

He said the coming discussions would be critical.

"I think we're coming to a point where things would have to change drastically for them to come here, or it will just fall apart," he said.

Councilor Jean Schnake said written support from her would require a dramatic change on the project's part. She said it was frustrating that project demands involved less city oversight while simultaneously requiring more city help.

"It just doesn't quite ring with a sense of sincerity," she said.

Councilor John Lundell, meanwhile, who has been a potential swing vote on the land transfer issue, said he had problems with some of the project's terms, though none were "deal busters." Still, he said it was a good sign that project leaders still were willing to talk with the city and hoped Ray's letter would lead to a rapid and definitive answer -- one way or the other.

"I see it as sort of an offering on their part that hopefully will lead to a fruitful and hopefully final decision," he said.

Text of Governor Robert Ray's Letter of Demands
to the Coralville, Iowa, City Council

[Undated, but presumably delivered November 23, 2005]

Dear Mayor Fausett,

As you know, our board of directors met Thursday, November 10, to discuss next steps for The Environmental Project. I am following up our conversations and want to cover some items of importance to our board of directors and the City of Coralville.

It has been, and continues to be, the intent of The Environmental Project board -- with the help of others -- to plan, design, build and operate a world class learning facility and attraction in one of America's largest "green" buildings. Toward that end, our team has this year assembled a powerful set of experts, including KUD International, Grimshaw Architects, RDG, and the pre-construction planning team of Weitz and Turner.

An essential portion of the Project's design and its remaining financing -- Vision Iowa, local dollars, and some possible debt financing -- hinges on the precise site location and a relationship with a partner city. Thus it is critically important that site and relationship issues are understood and agreed upon before going forward, as the Project should endure for decades.

More than ever, our board and team believe there is a sense of urgency in determining, once and for all, whether the proposed Iowa River Landing site and the Project's relationship with Coralville, will work near and long term. We understand that the City, too, wants a rapid resolution of the matters which have been under discussion, inasmuch as you have indicated that you have other possibilities for the site.

It was made known to you in September that other communities, institutions, and developers had begun to contact board and staff members with proposals to host the Project. Those overtures followed comments by some of your City Council members. I have to assume that you, too, were disappointed by those remarks.

I know you are aware that our board was persuaded to relocate the Project from Cedar Rapids to your community because of Coralville's offer of 40-80 acres of land (later reduced to 30 acres, and now 22) and up to $30 million from private and/or public sources. Some of the building blocks that need to be in place for the Project to be in Coralville date back to the initial offer. Other criteria have been articulated through discussions with the City.

The board has directed me to communicate the following critieria to you; they are nearly identical to the proposed terms given to the City informally on Sunday, September 25.

"*The project requires a minimum of 25 acres of land, preferably 30, in order to ensure meaningful exterior and interior experiences, and viability for the future.

"*Based on the judgment of KUD and Grimshaw Architects, consistent with both firms' experience on global projects, The Environmental Project needs the ability to locate on the above mentioned site far enough south of Interstate 80 to significantly reduce the amount of ambient noise from traffic on the four lane (soon six lane) highway. A significant buffer which includes a variety of indigenous Iowa plants, crops, flowers, and gardens is essential for a holistic, enriching visitor experience.

"*Support from the community and from city officials is vitally important to building a strong case for a Vision Iowa grant. The Environmental Project board needs to know that if the Project is to be built on the Iowa River Landing site it will continue to have your personal support and the expressed, written support from all Coralville City Council members.

"*As has been true from the beginning, The Environmental Project financing plan requires private funds from individuals, foundations, and companies in the Coralville area and the Corridor. Your term sheet given to The Environmental Project on November 8, 2005 indicated an expectation of raising $40 million from that group of donors. We do not have the option of waiting one year to learn whether local sources totaling $40 million will materialize. The Environmental Project board requests some confirmation regarding commitments or intent to provide such funds in order to understand the reality of that offer.

"*Again, our board needs assurance that the above mentioned site would be transferred, under an agreed upon timetable, and free of any encumbrances. The land would be used as the location for the Project and would have to be available to secure debt financing, if required."

Time is of the essence, Jim The Environmental Project board directed me to share these comments with you and the City of Coralville, and to request a response on or before December 2, 2005. If you are unable to meet the above criteria and timeline, the board will have to proceed with exploring other alternatives. If it works for you, I would be happy to come to Coralville to meet with you in person within the next few days.

Thank you and best regards.


Robert D. Ray,