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Tiffin Backers Woo Rain Forest

Prime Location Touted by Town's Supporters

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 8, 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.]

TIFFIN -- Paintballers once patrolled the fields of an unassuming rural property in Tiffin. In a few years, that site could look drastically different.

Tiffin is in the running to host a $155 million indoor rain forest that also would feature an aquarium, a prairie, educational space and performance space. Also called the Environmental Project, its leaders recently named four finalists -- Tiffin, Pella, Grinnell and Riverside -- for the site. Dubuque is a secondary option for a scaled-back version. A final choice is expected in mid-May.

"They love this spot. It's a high point," Jim Angstman said about project leaders. Angstman, vice president of Regency Land Services and High Development Corp., has spearheaded efforts to bring the project to Tiffin.

"We are centrally located, it's a beautiful piece of property at a low price, plus there is all the access to nearby draws," Angstman said, referring to a new casino and golf course in Riverside as well as the University of Iowa in Iowa City and Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville.

His group wants the rain forest to be part of the proposed 200-acre, $200 million Villages of Tiffin, a commercial and residential development north of Interstate 80 between Jasper and Ireland avenues. They could be prepared to concede $10 to $15 million in infrastructure and land. The project could sit on a 70-acre plot between trees and along Clear Creek.

The project's board will choose based on a four-part criterion of ambiance, accessibility, acreage and the ability to raise $25 million locally.

Angstman is currently trying to secure that money and find supporters, which is admittedly not an easy task.

City leaders have not come out in support of bringing in the project and are reluctant to take a position for or against it.

"I read more about what's happening from the newspaper than I get from these people," Tiffin Mayor Glenn Potter said.

Potter said the city would not be contributing any money but said that if developers could make it happen, "it won't hurt anything."

"As far as taxes, it won't do a darn thing. We won't gain any or pay any extra. But it would add business and people," Potter said.

Opinions and knowledge about the project within the community are mixed.

"If it came here, it would make people come to Tiffin. It would be a main attraction," said Keaton Rogers, 20, of Johnson County. "It would put Tiffin on the map."

"It sucks," said Geraldine Coblentz, who has lived in Tiffin for more than 30 years. "I hope it never passes. Everyone thinks it's a joke."

"The state or whoever is funding this should think about putting money towards something else," such as health care, said Andrea Schropp, 19, who works in Tiffin.

"I think it's good for the area, especially for kids and tourism," said Brad Otto, who works at a local lumberyard. "People driving through on (Interstate) 80 might stop, maybe spend the night and buy gas."

The scenery, location and prior research of the area appear to be pluses for Tiffin's chances. However, generating the money and gaining support from local leaders could be roadblocks.

Many people worked to land the project five miles east in Coralville, which in 2000 was the initial destination. Now untrusting of project leaders, many are reluctant to lend political or economic capital to keep the rain forest in the area.

"It has to be more than a concept. Until it is more than that, I am not going to offer my time or resources to it," said Joe Raso, president of the Iowa City Area Development Group.

Others are working to ensure the project stays in the North Corridor.

The project could bring 500 construction jobs for two years, 200 permanent jobs and more than 1.1 million visitors a year.

"There is still so much potential. I am not giving up," said Terrence Neuzil, a Johnson County supervisor and a citizen advisory committee member for the Environmental Project. "I think that any person, any group, business that claims to be for economic development needs to step up and see that it remains in the Corridor."