Rain forest takes shape

Project financing still uncertain; Coralville works on final buyouts

By Brian Sharp

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 15, 2004

[This story is copyright by the Iowa City Press-Citizen and reproduced here as fair use for non-commercial, educational purposes only. All other use requires permission from the Press-Citizen.]

CORALVILLE -- Plans for an enclosed rain forest and education project continue to gain focus, with organizers -- awaiting full release of $50 million in federal tax dollars -- now certain that mammals as well as fish and birds will populate the exhibit.

The city of Coralville, meanwhile, is trying to negotiate four final property buyouts to clear the old industrial park for redevelopment. The four owners who remain holdouts, including Hillside Packaging and Hawkeye Wrecker & Crane Service, are within the 30 acres taggedfor the rain forest project southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue. City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said officials have set a Sept. 1 deadline.

"We want everything to be wrapped up by then," he said. "If not, we'll be moving forward ... we'd have to be looking, then, at condemnation."

Hillside Packaging and Hawkeye Wrecker officials did not return phone calls last week.
Officials with the planned Iowa Environmental/Education Project in Coralville say there will be mammals, fish and birds living in the enclosed rain forest. Visitors will be able to learn about wildlife, as well as plant life, in a tropical rain forest.  Photo courtesy of the IEEP
The rain forest is one part of the Iowa River Landing redevelopment, envisioned to create a new entrance to the city. Anchoring the transformation will be a Marriott hotel and conference center that Hayworth said should be bid in mid-November. Officials already have begun prepping the Edgewater Park site at the east end of Ninth Street.

The $180 million Iowa Environmental/Education Project would sit farther north, stretching three football fields in length and rising 18 stories. Included is a 1.2 million-gallon aquarium, informational galleries, a re-created outdoor wetland and prairie, amphitheater and 50,000 square feet, or more than one acre, set aside for an educational component to include research and teaching space.
[This rendering shows the interior view of the entrance to the planned enclosed rain forest in Coralville.  Photo courtesy of the IEEP]

Officials said they were not prepared to list off the specific types of mammals, fish and birds that will inhabit the rain forest.

Construction is scheduled to begin in spring or summer 2005.

Project officials submitted a final budget to the Department of Energy on Aug. 3, said Brian Quirke, spokesman for the department through which the money Congress earmarked in January will be released. The typical review takes 45 days, he said, but while the assigned staffer planned to work over the weekend, the typical award is $2 million or less.

"This is obviously quite a bit larger," he said. "We expect this to go through, but we have to do our work."

The DOE already released a "pre-award" of $1.4 million in February, paying for certain "approvable expenses." Project founder and Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend has bankrolled operations thus far.

Fund-raising remains unchanged, stuck at the mid-way point since the $50 million award in January. Other money comes from the city of Coralville ($20 million in land and infrastructure); and a $10 million energy deal. Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said he is optimistic after speaking with project chief administrator David Oman last month.

"I understand that they are very, very close to having everything in line," Fausett said. "They have indicated they want to start soil boring yet this fall. ... I think he feels like they're getting closer to the end zone at last. When I talked to him, he was very optimistic and excited. I think they have several corporate sponsors that are very close to signing."

Oman is on vacation and did not return phone calls. Project spokeswoman Nancy Quellhorst said a significant announcement is expected later this month but that it did not involve fund-raising. She said much of the $50 million is targeted for consent, meaning officials will not immediately begin writing checks.

"We have several different things going on," she said, noting that along with design and technology development officials are looking to bring on more staff. "It all sort of runs concurrently."

Financial records show Oman and company paid a Washington, D.C., company $69,500 to lobby for the $50 million. It was a rough process at the time, said Mark Prater, chief tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee led by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is largely credited for securing the federal aid. The first attempt tied it to other environmental, so-called Green Bond projects and tucked the funding onto the energy bill. It would have secured financing through tax credit bonds, an avenue that would have put the project millions in debt and also proved to be a bad fit politically.

"Lobbyists for the other projects started circulating a lot of negative information (about IEEP)," Prater said. "You saw House officials start to trash it ... There were interests for the other projects essentially trying to flush the Iowa project down the toilet to get their project in. It was unfair."

As it turned out, Grassley pulled the rain forest project from the energy bill and cut a deal to halve the benefit and make it a direct award attached to the massive "omnibus" federal spending bill. That award came in January and, as Oman said at the time, changed "the psychology around the project. It's no longer a question of if, but a question of what, at exactly what cost and when."The largest bill last year, outside of Oman's $175,000 salary, was the $182,254 spent with environmental consultants California-based Environmental Enterprises.