2005 critical for rain forest

Project board plans ahead

Adam Pracht

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 22, 2004

[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 or commercial use requires the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

CORALVILLE -- The $180 million rain forest and education project should take shape in 2005.

Chief project administrator David Oman said that next year critical goals should be met, including detailed plans for the caterpillar-shaped structure, the securing of at least a portion of the roughly $90 million yet to be raised and a projected groundbreaking and start of construction mid-year.

"We're at a key point now where time is as important as finances," Oman said Tuesday. "It will be a red-letter year for the project."

The project, planned for the southeast corner of Interstate 80 and First Avenue, will stretch three football fields in length and rise 18 stories high. Inside, visitors will find a 4.5-acre rain forest and a 1.2 million gallon aquarium as well as teaching and research space.

Twenty members of the Environmental Project's board of directors met Tuesday to plan the next steps for the project for 2005 including getting the next set of construction drawings.

These would include specific dimensions and materials for the project and a solid budget for the outer walls and structure of the enclosed rain forest. Oman said engineers should finish the plans by the board's next meeting in February, although the initial timeline had called for completed plans by the end of 2004.

Also Tuesday, a group of about six scientists met for the first time to start discussing the research possibilities of the project. Next year, the project team also should address the logistics of making the rain forest grow and flourish under its dome.

The science design team ultimately will make recommendations about what research should be included and how to tie in full-time staff scientists with education.

Benjamin Beck, director of conservation at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, led the team of scientists, which is likely to expand.

Oman also said that in a few months, several million more dollars should come into the project, which reached the halfway mark at $90 million in January.

He said project officials hope want to at least have a ceremonial groundbreaking in mid-2005, even if not all the money is secured. Oman said a groundbreaking could encourage the last of the funding to come through.

"You don't need to have every dollar in the drawer before you ... begin construction," he said.

Oman said the project is working with corporations, individuals and foundations in securing more funds for the project. He said the project is in fifth meetings with some of the companies, most of which are out of state and some are sizable. He mentioned that project officials had made recent trips to California and New York to try to secure funding.

E-mails from project to Coralville officials, obtained by the Press-Citizen through an open records request, have mentioned General Electric, Ford, John Deere and Hewlett Packard as potential partners.

Bob Ray, the project's board chairman, said he sensed optimism in the board of directors meeting.

"I think the board is more excited than I've seen them at any time previous," he said.

Some still are skeptical about the project's probability of success, however, including Coralville city councilor Tom Gill. On Nov. 11, Gill said he wanted to see private funds in 60 days, even though other councilors did not share his view. As Jan. 11 approaches, Gill said he stands by his position.

He said he would oppose giving land the city has obtained to the project until all of the funding was secured. He said he supports the idea of the project but said funding hasn't progressed in a year.

"You can design and design and the money keeps going away, and we keep sitting on land that's not generating tax dollars," Gill said.

He said he had hoped the board would announce private funds Tuesday.

"I don't really want to knock the project," he said. "I thought they would come out with some kind of splash."