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Rain Forest Finalists Named

Cities Must Raise $25M

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

March 30, 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.]

This conceptual image of The Environmental Project, designed by Grimshaw Architects PC based in New York, was released Wednesday at a news conference where officials named Tiffin, Riverside, Grinnell, Pella and Dubuque as finalists for the project site.   Special to the Press-Citizen

AMANA COLONIES -- The list for potential sites for a mammoth indoor rain forest has been narrowed from seven to five sites.

Environmental Project officials named Grinnell, Tiffin, Riverside and Lake Red Rock near Pella as the top choices for the rain forest. Dubuque's Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium remains in contention for a scaled-back version of the project. Once the focal point, Coralville now appears out of the running.

Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, chairman of the project's board, announced the finalists flanked by David Oman, the project's chief administrator, and John Best, a consultant with KUD International, on Wednesday at the Amana Colonies Holiday Inn.

Project officials, once thought to be announcing a final nominee Wednesday, now expect to announce a single destination in mid-May.

The focus of the next six weeks, at least for the selected communities, appears to be the ability to raise the requested $25 million.

The project leaders' plan calls for a two-tiered approach of community-driven and project-driven private financing, which would go along with federal funds and potential state funds. The community would be expected to raise money first before the project signaled their private financers, Oman said.

"I'm a little overwhelmed by the task of coming up with $25 million," said Jim Angstman, vice president of Regency Land Services and High Development Corp. "I am definitely not a fundraiser. I am a little concerned about that aspect to say the least."

Angstman and his group are proposing a site as part of the 200-acre, $200 million Villages of Tiffin, north of Interstate 80 between Jasper and Ireland avenues.

As part of the announcement, the group introduced a new design for the project that would include a 4.5-acre facility and extensive outdoor aspects.

"The design will be appropriate to the final site selected," said Andrew Whalley of Grimshaw Architects P.C. in New York.

Recommendations for the finalists were guided by a four-part criterion, including sufficient acreage, ambiance, major roadway access and local funding.

Angstman said he was excited, but daunted, by task of coming up with $25 million. He said he hoped that because the project already had spent considerable dollars researching the area with its interest in Coralville and Cedar Rapids, that it would offset other any concerns.

Developers working on a casino in Riverside would like to land the project on a 40-acre plot near Highway 218.

"We are excited that we are one of few communities still being considered," Riverside Mayor Bill Poch said. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Project executives are going to have to get with council to clue us in.

"We've always had a wait-and-see type attitude, so we are still waiting for executives to come and sit down and talk with us."

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

"($25 million) is a big vision, yet a realistic one," DML spokesman Eric Woolson said. "I know it is going to require a financial contribution and we are ready to step up to the plate and meet that request."

While financing appears a strong point for DML, a proposed location away from a major interstate has caused some to question the site.

"This most likely is not going to be a spur-of-the-moment stop, instead a destination," Woolson said.

Coralville's 22-acre site southeast of Interstate 80 exit 242, which had been the focus of the project since 2000, was eliminated in part because they lacked sufficient space, Oman said.

"I am pleased that we are in a position now to move ahead to work on a project that Coralville wants and needs, versus convincing the community that a rain forest is what the community wants," Coralville City Councilor John Lundell said. "I wish those other communities well, but be prepared for a long and frustrating process."

The project without land costs has a $155 million price tag. Other than $10 million from financer Ted Townsend and $50 million of now frozen federal funds, there are no other financing sources identified.

The list of seven contending cities, which had submitted an information request by the Jan. 31 deadline, also included Des Moines and Coralville. Nine other cities also expressed interest, Oman said.

Naming the finalists came after an extensive morning meeting Wednesday with the project's board of directors, in which a three-person site-selection subcommittee presented information and recommendations and the group chose the finalists. It was a near unanimous decision, Oman said.

The subcommittee visited the sites in February and continued an exhaustive process before narrowing the list. The committee included former state auditor Richard Johnson, Central College's Betsy Roe and former Maytag president and CEO Leonard Hadley.

A potential completed project could come as soon as 2009, Oman said.