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Coralville Project Headed for Scrap Heap

Civic Skinny: When it Rains it Pours


September 1, 2005

"No one wants to be the person who kills it. So they're just letting it starve to death."

[Note: This material is copyright by Cityview, 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 Cityview.]

A top state office holder recently broke down for Cityview the Iowa Environmental Project in Coralville after city leaders there began balking at the idea of the behemoth ever becoming a reality. This individual, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained to us in an e-mail that the project is destined to die. "Maybe it's a great project, maybe not. But it makes no difference. No one in the state believes in this project - except Ted Townsend and Bob Ray and Dave Oman, who has been getting a big salary in his well-traveled but fruitless efforts to get money. It's ironic that the only true source has been that great watchdog of government excesses, Chuck Grassley, who got them $50 million in federal funds - to the great dismay of conservative Republicans and at the expense of being ridiculed nationwide. Now, even that money is being whittled away as these guys fly around talking up the project. It was booted out of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids before it settled in Coralville, and now the people in Coralville are losing their patience. The backers keep reinventing it - first it was the Rain Forest, then the Iowa Child Project, now it's the Environmental Project. But whatever the name, whatever the location, it has no backers. People who have seen the optimistic reports from the various consultants just don't believe them; they see it not as a great green project but rather as a great white elephant. No one thinks it would work financially either. You don't see Principal in there, or Deere, or Pioneer, or the utility companies, or Wells Fargo (where Oman's brother is a huge executive) or any of the other usual backers of big projects in the state. Look at the board of directors - some folks from big companies, but you don't see those big companies as givers. Bob Burnett is listed as a director, but I'll bet Meredith doesn't have a penny in it. The same goes with Joe Hladky of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And you don't see the state - which has spent hundreds of millions backing tourism and educational and environmental projects - anywhere near the place. The project hasn't been able to get any money from Vision Iowa or the Iowa Values Fund or in direct appropriation from the Legislature, even though big-time Republicans - former gubernatorial hopeful and gubernatorial aide Oman, former Gov. Ray, long-time state auditor Richard Johnson - are out there lobbying and twisting arms. More recently, they took on a Democratic friend of Vilsack's, lawyer-lobbyist Bill Wimmer, to try to twist those same arms, but he can't wring out any state money, either. And you don't see Tom Vilsack or Sally Pederson or Mike Blouin or any legislative leaders or would-be governors taking up the cause. Still, no one will oppose it publicly, because no one wants to be tagged as a person who thinks small. Everyone wants it to just quietly go away, but no one wants to be the person who kills it. So they're just letting it starve to death."

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