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D.M., Dubuque Consider Pitches for Rain Forest

The Group in Charge Has Opened Talks After Being Unable to Reach a Deal in Coralville

Perry Beeman and Erin Jordan

December 9, 2005

See also, below, "Man's Dream for Rain Forest Stays Alive," and Perry Beeman, "Coralville: Rain Forest Looking for a New Place to Grow."

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

Des Moines will consider backing a $180 million rain forest project that has lost its footing in Coralville.

Dubuque also is in the running.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Councilwoman Chris Hensley said the rain forest-and-aquarium project is now much different from the $325 million version Des Moines leaders rejected years ago.

Downtown Des Moines also has changed, with new developments, they said. The prospect of combining the scaled-back project with a new Blank Park Zoo and other attractions downtown deserves a hard look, Cownie said.

"It would make a lot of sense," he said. "Des Moines is the logical location."

Hensley agreed.

"The city's perspective is we should study it," she said. ". . . I think it has tremendous potential."

The Environmental Project, as the development is called, on Thursday opened the door for talks with Des Moines, Dubuque and possibly other cities after meeting with Coralville leaders. The rain forest board and Coralville officials said they were disappointed that they couldn't come to terms.

Tom Gill, a Coralville City Council member who has been critical of the project, said the city was prepared to find a way to meet the rain forest's recent requests for more land along Interstate Highway 80 and proof the city could raise $40 million.

"We've put a lot of time and energy into this project, and the only way it will go on is if we are the sole site selection," Gill said. "Sometimes it's best to move on."

That brings the debate, in part, back to Des Moines, where the project started as the brainstorm of businessman Ted Townsend. He is still looking for the required matching money for a $50 million federal grant arranged by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and has little other financing arranged.

Cownie said he considers the project world-class. It makes sense in centrally located Iowa and in its capital city, Cownie said. "This the center of Iowa, of government and of commerce," he said.

Leaders from Des Moines and Dubuque said they didn't want to interfere with Coralville, but now will open talks because the rain forest group has invited other negotiations.

Cownie and Hensley said Des Moines soon will review the rain forest business plan to see if city support is warranted. Cownie said the educational elements of the project, and the prospect of adding to other developments in the resurgent downtown, are particularly interesting.

Tom Hockensmith, chairman of the Polk County Board of Supervisors, said he can't see the county committing tax receipts to the project because it already is supporting the Iowa Events Center and other projects.

Hensley and her husband, Steve, in March visited the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, something of a model for the Iowa project. Eden turned an economically depressed area and former vacation spot into a renewed tourist attraction, English business leaders told Hensley.

"It was absolutely stunning," Hensley said of Eden, a Millennium Project supported by the British government. "It's in the middle of nowhere and its effect on the local economy was way beyond my imagination."

The Environmental Project architect team is headed by London-based Grimshaw Architects, which designed Eden.

The four-year-old enclosed rain forest, without the aquarium planned in Iowa, draws 1.3 million visitors a year, about double what was projected.

The Iowa version would be in a foil-wrapped, energy-efficient enclosure as much as 20 stories tall. Visitors would walk through the canopy of living Amazonian trees, visit a million-gallon aquarium, and take in classes at an education center. Backers want to open the center in 2009.

Terry Rich of the Blank Park Zoo Foundation said his organization would be interested in discussing a move for the zoo, should the city decide that's appropriate.

Talk has centered on a spot across the Des Moines River from Principal Park baseball stadium, in a tree-dotted area big enough for both the rain forest and the zoo. The city and MidAmerican Energy each own some of the land.

Officials from the city of Dubuque and the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium announced Nov. 10 they had "preliminary discussions" with organizers of the Environmental Project about whether Dubuque might be considered for the project.

Teri Goodmann, development director with the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, said Thursday the museum is still interested in talking about the project.

River museum organizers plan to expand their facility on the Dubuque riverfront and think some elements - but not all - of the rain forest project would fit the mission, Goodmann said.

"It might include some components of that, but our interest is in the Mississippi River and global rivers, which would include the Amazon," she said.

Thursday's developments started with a conference-call meeting among project and Coralville representatives. Former Gov. Robert Ray, representing the rain forest, told Coralville officials that the project would begin negotiations with other cities, but leave the door open to finishing a deal with Coralville.

Coralville city officials responded almost immediately by announcing that they do not intend to get in a bidding war for the project.

Man's Dream for Rain Forest Stays Alive

Des Moines Register

December 9, 2005

Ted Townsend's simultaneously mocked and admired dream of bringing a bit of the Amazon to Iowa is still alive.

Like a jungle cat clinging forcefully to what's left of its nine lives, the Environmental Project continues to operate after a series of rejections, negotiating logjams, delays in fundraising and other issues.

After bouncing from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids to Coralville, morphing and shrinking as it went, the $180 million rain forest, aquarium, prairie and educational center is still looking for a home. A deal with Coralville appears less likely, but there is renewed interest in Des Moines. Dubuque is making overtures, too.

While the project, nearly a decade in the making, has looked for a home and for elusive financing, Townsend has realized another dream many doubted: He opened Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a Des Moines research center studying the communication, learning and social behavior of great apes.

— Perry Beeman

Coralville: Rain Forest Looking for a New Place to Grow

Perry Beeman

Des Moines Register

December 8, 2005

Backers of a massive rain forest-and-aquarium project in Iowa on Thursday told Coralville officials they will open negotiations with other Iowa towns.

Coralville officials almost immediately countered that they have no intention of getting into a bidding war for the project and will look for other uses for the proposed site along Interstate Highway 80 in case negotiations stall completely.

"City representatives said they believe they could reach agreement with all the points in the governor's letter through negotiations," the city said in a statement.

"City representatives also said they believe strongly in the project and believe the land along Interstate 80 is the best location in the state for the project, but they will not compete with other communities,” the statement said. “The city's negotiating team also indicated they will immediately explore all other development alternatives for the highly visible and easily accessed property."

Earlier, State Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville, who was in on a telephone meeting between the rain forest team and Coralville Thursday morning, said Coralville-area leaders still hope to land the $180 million project.

He said backers of the project told Coralville leaders that their town is still in the running, but they want to pursue overtures from other cities.

A rain forest official in Coralville declined comment. Rainforest chief David Oman was not immediately available.

Thursday's announcement opens the possibility that the project could move back to where it started — Des Moines — or to a new contender, such as Dubuque.

Coralville remains in the running, but the rain forest team led by Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend and former Gov. Robert Ray, has been unable to come to an agreement over the use of approximately 22 acres next to Interstate Highway 80 in Coralville.

That disagreement centers on whether the city would donate the land or lease it to the project.