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Rain Forest Project Excites Grinnell

City Competing with 3 Other Environmental Project Finalists

Brian Morelli

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 16, 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.]

GRINNELL -- A massive environmental education project could mark the halfway point between two of Iowa's largest population areas.

Grinnell is competing with three other finalists for the $155 million Environmental Project, which would include an indoor rain forest. For the expected mid- to late-May selection, project board members would use a four-part criteria -- access, acreage, ambiance and a $25 million local match. Many in Grinnell hope the town fits the bill.

"We have no doubt we have the best site. It's on Interstate 80. It's an hour from key population centers in the state (Des Moines/Ames and Cedar Rapids/Iowa City)," said Bill Menner, noting that 39,000 cars a day pass Grinnell exit 182. "The site stands out because of the elevation. It looks perfect from both directions."

Menner, economic development director for Poweshiek County, spearheads efforts to bring the project to the nearly 10,000-person community. The 4.5-acre facility and expansive exterior with wetlands and prairie would sit on farmland south of downtown Grinnell on the northwest corner of Interstate 80 and Highway 146.

The commercial Lang Creek Crossing development would host the Environmental Project. Residents and leaders said it would enhance grade schools and Grinnell College, which could benefit from the education and performance space. They said it also would complement the historic downtown district renovation and other projects such as the Iowa Trans-portation Museum, by adding to the tourist appeal and financial draw.

Each community would be expected to hand over the land and infrastructure needed for the project on top of the $25 million.

Sewer and water lines already reach the land, said Gordon Canfield, Grinnell mayor. He said the town would support the effort to land the project.

"We need to get Iowa off dead center. This is something that would make Iowa move," Canfield said.

Rain forest talks focused first on Cedar Rapids and then on Coralville until 2005 when a land transfer and funding agreement failed. Because of its more than six-year history in the North Corridor, many in the area have mixed feelings about the project. However, around Grinnell talk was mostly positive.

"I wish it would come. It would be good for Grinnell and the whole area. I would like Iowa to have a variety of things to do, not just corn and soybeans," said Chris Ullrich, 62, of Grinnell. "I am still not sure about financing though, but I think the investment would come back."

Jeff Phelps, owner of Saints Rest coffeehouse, said he would like the project to come, although he too had concerns about financing.

"It would provide jobs, and give students who want to stay after college something to do," Phelps said.

Most people wanted to see the project in Grinnell, but some did not like the idea.

"They should be spending money on maintaining the real rain forest, rather than building ones indoors. It seems illogical. It seems like a waste of money," said Jordan Lee, 20, a student at Grinnell College.

There appears to be local support, but there is no guarantee the project would come to Grinnell. Project officials said the other finalists -- Tiffin, Riverside and Lake Red Rock -- have an equal chance.

Originally a 40-acre plot of farmland, Grinnell could expand to a competitive 60 acres or more offer.

Environmental Project architects also designed the comparable Eden Project in Cornwall, England. The near 100-acre project draws about one million people annually.

"The number of acres is important. It is integral to the decision on where to locate the project. The board's interest is in a site as large as possible," said David Oman, project director, adding that the site has a nice location.