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Rain Forest Backers Hire Firm as Project's Future Stays Unclear
Perry Beeman and Madelaine Jerousek

Des Moines Register

September 1, 2005

[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.]

Backers of the Coralville rain forest project have hired the architects who designed a similar, successful project in England.

The Environmental Project, the Iowa organization, has hired Grimshaw Architects, which has offices in London, New York and Melbourne, Australia.

The firm designed the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. That rain forest attraction drew 500,000 paying customers who watched its construction, and 1.8 million a year after it opened in 2001.

But the biggest question will the Iowa rain forest ever be built? remained Wednesday as the organization failed again to announce new financing for the $180 million project. To date, there is no agreement with the city to build on the site.

"These are long projects," Executive Director David Oman said.

Coralville city leaders said they still question the project's financial health.

"This is the last in a series of incidents that's caused me to lose complete confidence in the Environmental Project leadership team to successfully complete the project," City Councilman John Lundell said of the decision to hire a new architecture firm.

"We respect their views," Oman said of City Council critics.

The project has reported the sources for about half of the $180 million project's cost, including a $50 million federal grant.

However, Oman added that the project hopes for a Vision Iowa grant of perhaps $20 million and is negotiating with private investors. The rain forest board may borrow money for the rest, Oman said. Inflation has made time an even greater issue. Still, the current schedule calls for breaking ground next year and opening on Earth Day on April 22, 2009, Oman said.

Andrew Whalley, who will lead the architectural team, said he is "thrilled" to be working on another project that should be an attention-grabbing tourist attraction. He wants to create "something that is truly unique, of international significance and that casts a spell on all who visit."

The project, with its centerpiece indoor rain forest in a tall, worm-shaped structure visible from Interstate Highway 80, includes an aquarium, prairie reconstructions and educational programs.

Skeptical Coralville officials have discussed using the prime land along the interstate for something else. Last week, they imposed a Sept. 20 deadline for project planners to respond to the terms of a land-transfer agreement. The contract imposes a six-month deadline for raising money.

"The fact they've hired a new architect is one more expense without any apparent sign of money coming in," Jean Newlin Schnake, a City Council member, said Wednesday.

Oman said the project has the money to pay the new architects. He said design work on the enclosure was delayed by a number of factors, including the long work to sign an agreement with Coralville to use the site.

Project backers said landing Grimshaw is an impressive feat .

"We believe Grimshaw will bring an understanding of environmental sustainability that can be found with no other firm in the world," Oman said.

The new rain forest architecture team also will include RDG Planning & Design of Des Moines, and international experts on construction, air mechanics, enclosures and energy conservation.

The rain forest team spent two months looking for an architect. It faced a controversy recently when it terminated its contract with Chermayeff, Sollogub & Poole Inc. in June because Peter Sollogub returned to his previous firm, Cambridge Seven Associates.

At the time, a representative of CSP said the project owed the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars. Oman on Wednesday said lawyers are negotiating over a single Sollogub invoice.

The firm did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment.