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7 Towns on Rain Forest Site List
Coralville, Riverside, Tiffin Still Under Consideration

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

February 1, 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.]

The potential sites for a proposed indoor rain forest dwindled to seven Tuesday.

Environmental Project officials, who had been discussing a $180 million indoor rain forest with Coralville since 2000, said Grinnell, Tiffin, Riverside, Pella and Dubuque had returned a request for information about potential sites by the Jan. 31 deadline. David Oman, the project's chief administrator, also expected responses from Coralville and Des Moines.

A three-person subcommittee of the project's board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday to set a schedule to evaluate the sites. Committee members include Richard Johnson, former state auditor, of Sheldahl, Betsy Roe, of the president's office at Central College in Pella, and Leonard Hadley, former president and CEO of Maytag Corp.

The evaluation process will include visits to each location. Project leaders said they expect a decision on a preferred site in late March. The project calls for a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium and classroom and art performance space.

A Des Moines official had said early in the day they would not enter a submission. However, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie later confirmed that Des Moines had decided to stay involved with project talks and would submit information.

Cownie said some potential sites would include the areas near the Blank Park Zoo and Water Works Park and sites in the northwest part of Des Moines.

The Pella City Council voted unanimously Monday night to send a letter of support for a development project that could host the rain forest, Pella's city administrator Mike Nardini said. DLM Land Development from Des Moines is proposing a location on the eastern shore of Lake Red Rock.

"The city didn't obligate any money, but we are supportive of the developers' efforts," Nardini said.

Oman confirmed that Dubuque submitted information to be a potential rain forest site. This is after Jerry Enzler the director of the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium -- a potential site for the rain forest -- said in January the museum would not be able to support the project as it was described and maintain the museum's vision.

For Coralville, relations with the project cooled in December after quarrels over the land and the city's funding, which led project officials to announce they would entertain other sites.

Tom Gill, Coralville City Council member, said he didn't think anything would happen as a result of submitting the information, which, he said, was exactly the same proposal as before.

"Maybe they haven't kept their end of the deal, but we are going to follow our end out. We are just kind of putting the period at the end of the sentence," Gill said. "Coralville will not be the reason this project didn't work here. Coralville did not make this project go away."

Other council members had mixed views.

"I still think we are the strongest location. But we have to have some say, we have to have some representation on their board," said Coralville City Council member John Lundell.

Lundell said the biggest concern is for private financing, which, he said, brings into question the leadership of the project's ability to raise money.

"Something needs to change in order for the project to break through," Lundell said, noting he didn't necessarily think that called for a change in leadership or personnel.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said the project leaders -- Oman, Ted Townsend and Robert Ray -- have been unwilling to accept local input and advice. He also has been frustrated that leaders would not seek out local experts or adapt the project to the local resources or environment.

"This project needs a change of attitude or else its not going to work anywhere," Dvorsky said.

Some personnel changes have occurred on the project's board. Nancy Quellhorst, the project vice president, will leave Friday, and Ted Stilwill, former education director, stepped aside in January.

"For the near term, we will manage with the staff and consultants we have," said Oman adding that once a site was selected they would "staff-up appropriately."

Oman said he remains optimistic and committed to the project.