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Rain Forest Coming Down to the Wire

Project's Board May Consider Other Locations

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 2, 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 -- If all Coralville city council members haven't provided written support of a $180 million rain forest project by today, the chairman of the project's board said they'll start considering other locations in addition to Coralville.

On Nov. 18, Bob Ray, chairman of The Environ-mental Project board, sent a letter to Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, listing the project's requirements from the city and giving a deadline of today to meet them.

The project proposes building a 4.5-acre enclosed rain forest, a more than one million gallon aquarium and teaching and performance space to anchor the Iowa River Landing development southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue. And while proponents have said the world-class attraction would bring jobs, critics have questions about funding and project leadership.

Among the requirements Ray set out were getting 25 to 30 acres of land farther south from the interstate instead of the 22 Coralville is offering, written support from Fausett and all five Coralville council members, assurances that $40 million can be raised from local sources and guarantees that the land would be transferred under a set timetable and free of encumbrances.

And although City Administrator Kelly Hayworth has said face-to-face meetings between city and project leaders are planned for next week, Ray said that's not enough to satisfy today's deadline.

If the project's requirements are not met, Ray said the board would feel free to explore other prospects. Ray said as many as 10 other locations had approached project officials about obtaining the project.

"It doesn't mean that Coralville wouldn't be in the mix, but it puts us in a different position than we would have been in heretofore," Ray said.

One city that could be in that mix is Dubuque.

Public information officer Randy Gehl referred to an official statement, which confirmed that the city had talked with project officials about the feasibility of merging the project with the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. However, the statement also noted that it had received conflicting messages about whether the city had an agreement with the project.

"The City of Dubuque has no intention of interfering with any agreement between Coralville and The Environmental Project, if such an agreement exists," the news release said.

Jerry Enzler, executive director of the museum and aquarium, said he hoped the project would continue as planned in Coralville.

"We're not trying to woo them away or convince them to come to Dubuque or anything else," Enzler said.

But if talks fall through in Coralville, he said they would be willing to talk further with project officials.

Ray's letter was a response to Coralville's own draft terms for transferring the city land, which included tying strings to a $50 million Department of Energy grant and setting specific timelines for fundraising and planning.

Councilor Tom Gill said he thinks both sides are far apart going into next week's meeting.

"I hope that there could be some compromise to it," he said. "But on the other hand, I'm guarded about it."

Councilor John Lundell said that the meetings would be important for determining the next step for the project.

"I think everyone's patience is running out and everyone wants to take the project to the next step, whatever that step might be," he said.

Councilor John Weihe said councilors weren't the only ones losing patience. He said the tone of Ray's letter to Fausett had turned citizens he knew who supported the project to seriously question it or even oppose it. He said he was frustrated that project leaders were requiring the deadline today when a meeting was happening next week and that council members have been asking for clarity for months.

"Are they even serious about talking with us, would be my question," Weihe said.

Ray said he hoped both sides could work out differences and determine whether Coralville wants the rain forest project and could meet the project's requirements. He said that without council support, they would be unable to get Vision Iowa funds.

"And that's a deal-breaker. I mean, why would we want to pursue it if they don't want it?" Ray said.

Whatever the decisions that come out of the meeting, Lundell said the public should have an opportunity to sound off about it before a final decision is made.

"I think it needs to be a very visible process," he said. "There's too much at stake for the community."

Lundell said he wasn't sure what the land should be used for if The Environmental Project falls through, but he thought plenty of creative ideas were possible.

"To me, that sounds kind of fun," he said. "Who knows what might come out of it?"

Executive director David Oman was in England on Thursday, visiting the Eden Project, which is similar to The Environmental Project. Hayworth did not return messages left Wednesday and Thursday requesting specifics on next week's meeting.

Gill said the project was entering a make-or-break stage with the meetings.

"It's a final step," he said. "It'll be closure one way or the other."