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Coralville Still Vying for Rain Forest
Deadline for Towns Today

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 31, 2006

[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.]

Today is the deadline for towns to submit information to the Environmental Project, which will be used to recommend a preferred site for a $180 million indoor rain forest.

After the information is collected, the project will progress into an evaluation stage, with a vote and decision of the project's preferred site expected sometime in February or March.

Representatives from Grinnell, Tiffin and Coralville said they had collected and would deliver required information about a potential site for the project. The project calls for a 4.5-acre rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium, and classroom and art performance space.

"This will just be a reiteration of what was offered before -- exactly the same. It is in the board's hands," Coralville City Council member Tom Gill said Monday.

Relations between project leaders and Coralville, which had been the focus of the proposal since 2000, cooled in December after quarrels over the land and the city's funding led project officials to announce they would entertain other sites.

Although Coralville is still vying for the project, some people remain leery of the project's direction.

"I can't take a fresh look at something that hasn't changed. They would have to have something concrete for this to go forward, and we haven't seen anything concrete yet," Gill said.

Gill had previously expressed frustration with the project, but he said local support would remain if the project could become more tangible.

Nancy Quellhorst, who will step away from her role as the project's vice president Friday, said a subcommittee of the project's board of directors would review the sites and make a recommendation for the board to vote on. The committee includes Betsy Roe, president of Central College in Pella; Leonard Hadley, former president and CEO of Maytag Corp.; and former state auditor Dick Johnson of Sheldahl.

Quellhorst has been hired to become president of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce beginning Feb. 6. She said she was unaware of plans for a successor. David Omen, project president, did not return phone calls.

With recent departures, such as Quellhorst and Ted Stilwill, the former education director, some local leaders question the project's leadership structure.

"I don't think some of these people would have left if leadership had been different," said Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, who declined to elaborate.

However, he said he remained optimistic about the project.

Jacoby said he thought Coralville's offer would be hard to compete with. He said as potential sites dwindle, project leaders would recognize the great site and financial package Coralville had on the table.

"I still really like the project, but until we see private money, I would not vote to use Vision Iowa funds," Jacoby said.