Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Coralville Out of Running for Project?

Rain Forest Officials to Announce Finalists Today

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 29, 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.]

It's looking like Johnson County still could land the massive indoor rain forest project, but it wouldn't be in Coralville.

Several sources confirmed that sites in Tiffin and Pella would be the top two finalists, while another source said Riverside might be in the top three.

In contrast to previous indications that there would be a single site chosen, Environmental Project officials said Tuesday they would announce a list of finalists for the proposed rain forest. The announcement is scheduled for noon today at the Amana Colonies Holiday Inn following a board meeting.

"I don't understand after four or five years why the Coralville site is undesirable," said Dick Myers, a project board member and former state representative. "I am not sure it's going to be built at all. I believe in the project, but I am not sure it's been managed well."

Myers, who is in Arizona and will not attend today's meeting, confirmed reports that Tiffin and Pella were finalists. The committee report cited excess road noise as a problem with the Coralville site, which Myers said was a red herring. He added that he didn't see how the Tiffin site wouldn't present the same problem.

"Everything would have to start from ground zero (with a new site). It took a lot of money and time (from Coralville and the project) to create the plans. A new project is going to need totally new plans," Myers said.

The board had been told for years of private financing opportunities with companies such as General Electric, but those deals fell through, Myers said.

"We saw no money being raised," he said. "I don't know if (the rain forest) would happen in Tiffin or anywhere."

DML Land Development is proposing a 70-acre site on the northeast shore of Lake Red Rock outside Pella.

"We heard they are going to narrow the field, and we are feeling comfortable we are going to be among the finalists," said Eric Woolson, a spokesman for DML. "I think the financial package we have will be a competitive one. We think we have the most to offer of any of the communities.

"(The site) could change the project initially, but I think more likely it would change the project as far as the option of second and third phases."

Tiffin developers have proposed including the rain forest in the $200 million Villages of Tiffin project north of Interstate 80 between Jasper and Ireland avenues.

"The rain forest has spent a lot of money and done extensive research on Johnson County and the Corridor," said Jim Angstman, vice president of Regency Land Services and the High Development Corp., which is spearheading the Villages project. "If you were not going to upset the whole flow of your deal, you choose somewhere nearby."

Riverside Mayor Bill Poch said casino officials indicated Riverside would be a top three finalist. Casino officials said they would not confirm or deny the information.

For more than five years, a 22-acre site southeast of Interstate 80 exit 242 in Coralville has been the focus of a $180 million project with a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium and classroom and art performance space.

It now appears the project -- and Coralville, which held its first community planning meeting for the land Tuesday night -- have moved on. Without the land factored in, the price tag would be in the $150 million range. Before Coralville, talks failed in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

"I still think it is an exemplary, visionary project. The flaw has always been the director's and the board's inability to raise money. They have no partners," said State Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville. "No matter where it goes, until they raise $50 million I would vote against using Vision Iowa money."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, secured $50 million in federal funds for the project. However problems with developing private financing led Grassley to demand matching funds before more of the money was available.

The restriction, however, also freed project officials to seek other locations. The project has until January 2008 to generate funding before they lose the federal dollars.

"Under the current leadership, I just don't see how it's going to happen. They haven't raised one dollar in the last six years," Jacoby said. "There have been so many announcements over the last few years, I think the board is pressed to make some kind of movement or else the project will die."

Plans with Coralville stalled in December following quarrels over land and funding, and project officials said they would entertain other sites.

By January 31, Coralville, Des Moines, Dubuque, Grinnell, Pella, Riverside and Tiffin had submitted information that signaled their interest in the project.

At that point, project leaders established a site selection committee to review information, visit sites and make a recommendation. Made up of three board members, the committee includes former state auditor Richard Johnson, former state auditor and Central College's Betsy Roe and former Maytag president and CEO Leonard Hadley.It is unclear when a final selection would be made.

Environmental Project president David Oman did not return phone calls Tuesday.