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The Amazon and I-80
Grinnell is a Finalist for an Indoor Rainforest Project with Educational and Economic Benefits,
but Some Criticize Funding as Pork-Barrel Excess

David Montgomery

The Scarlet & Black

April 14, 2006
[Volume 122, Number 21]

[Note: This material is copyright by The Scarlet & Black, 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 The Scarlet & Black.]

A dozen third-graders, shepherded by a watchful teacher, meander through a tropical rainforest, the air filled with birdcalls. Sunlight filters down from above, illuminating rare ferns. Exotic varieties of frogs and reptiles perch on trees, while in a nearby body of water multi-colored Amazon River fish dart by.

But these children aren't on an expensive field trip to Brazil. If local leaders have their way, within five years they could be near the intersection of Interstate 80 and Highway 146, contained within a translucent, high-tech 50-story high dome.

That's the goal of the Environmental Project, a non-profit organization based out of Des Moines. The finished project will include the indoor rainforest and an aquarium containing up to one million gallons of water, with the entire complex integrated with a restored tallgrass prairie. Grinnell is one of four Iowa communities that have been selected as finalists to host the Project, along with Pella/Red Rock, Riverside and Tiffin.

The total cost estimate is around $160 million dollars, with $50 million coming from a controversial federal grant earmarked by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). The host community is expected to provide $25 million, with the rest of the money coming from contributions by businesses and other non-profit foundations.

The Environmental Project's executive director David Oman said that the focus is entirely on education. "The building is all about the environment, and teaching people about multiple ecosystems," Oman said. "[That includes] the rainforest, but not exclusively that one. It's aimed at teaching visitors ... about the environment, threats to the environment and fragile ecosystems." The rainforest will contain many different types of flora and fauna but not large mammals.

Potential financial benefits for the host community are huge. An economic study commissioned by the Project estimated that the facility would attract over one million visitors every year, close to the numbers brought in by the Eden Project, a similar complex in Cornwall, U.K., since it opened in 2001. The study predicted an additional $130 to $140 million per year for the host community.

"There's 35,000 cars per day that drive past Grinnell," said Grinnell Trustee Todd Linden, who has been closely involved in Grinnell's attempt to get the Project. "I think there are obvious [benefits] in terms of economic impact. Once [visitors] are off the Interstate [to visit the Project], they're coming into Grinnell, staying in motels, eating in restaurants and shopping in our historic downtown."

Bill Menner, executive director of Poweshiek Iowa Development (Pow I-80), agreed, citing other benefits. "It would bring a huge number of well-paying jobs," Menner said. "They anticipate this having 150 employees. Many of them would be technical in nature" to maintain the Project's environments.

The final site for the Project will not be chosen for several weeks or months. The Project is currently communicating with the finalists, giving them access to currently confidential planning information and soliciting plans for providing financial and logistical support. Oman said that finalists will be judged on four criteria:

    * How much land is offered
    * The quality of the site, including topography, ambience and noise
    * Access to both transportation and to complementary educational facilities
    * Local financial assistance, up to around $25 million

The Project had settled on Coralville as its location. During the time-two years-that Coralville was the choice, the city spent millions of dollars on improvements. After problems arose, the Project reopened the process to other communities.

The location proposed by Grinnell is 160 acres near Interstate 80, in the Lang Creek Crossing development. Oman said that Interstate noise was one problem with the Coralville site, but he said that Grinnell's location was large enough that the dome could be set back from the Interstate.

Critics have lampooned the Project as a prime example of congressional pork. Tom Finnegan, spokesman for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), said that the Project didn't go through the proper authorization process. Most importantly, it has never been the subject of a congressional hearing.

"The project ... may or may not have merits," Finnegan said. "That's why there's a process in place to determine which projects the government should be funding. Once that ... becomes violated, then the door's thrown open to all sorts of wasteful projects."

A spokesperson for Senator Grassley disagreed. "The money appropriated ... was done with bipartisan support," said Beth Pellett Levine by e-mail. "Senator Grassley strongly believes in the project and has always been convinced of the benefits to Iowa. [He] will always listen to Iowans before a lobbying organizations like [CAGW]."

Oman also defended the lavishness of the project. "If you're pushing the envelope, doing something that's never been done, you're going to get questions," he said. "We're not building a box ... a sports arena or a shopping mall ... Some people are going to be skeptical, and we accept that."

Oman said that the Eden Project in the U.K. received about 50 percent of its funding from the British government, while the Environmental Project's grant only covers about one-third of total costs.