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Critical Days for Environmental Project


The Gazette

November 13, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    The Environmental Project is one of Iowa’s greatest opportunities and one of its messiest controversies.

    The indoor rain forest holds such promise for Iowa that visionaries such as former Gov. Bob Ray, Gov. Tom Vilsack, former Cedar Rapids Area Chamber executive Ron Corbett and many others in Iowa’s most-revered circles have been unabashed fans of the project. They see it as the state’s most alluring tourist attraction, as a bold educational endeavor and as a promising research complex.

    If The Environmental Project is ever built and paid for, there’s little doubt it will be all of that.

    But the journey from idea to completion for what was first known as Iowa Child has not gone well. In six years, the project has bounced from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids to Coralville and now perhaps on to Dubuque. The scope of the project has been cut substantially since it was first envisioned, from some $300 million to about $180 million. And despite numerous promises over the years that a big fundraising break was imminent, the project has attracted next to nothing from the private sector and nothing at all from state government.

    With the help of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, The Environmental Project did secure $50 million in federal funds. But now even that has become part of the controversy. Iowa has drawn national ridicule for what many view as a pork-barrel project, and Grassley has decided to put new conditions on the grant, seemingly both tightening and loosening the screws.

    Congress will require the project to raise $50 million before spending the federal government’s $50 million, which was being drawn upon to pay project director David Oman’s $175,000 annual salary and other planning expenses. But new legislation also would specify that the project could be built anywhere in Iowa, not solely in Coralville.

    That has added fuel to speculation that project planners have been meeting secretly with city officials from Dubuque, something now acknowledged by Dubuque leaders. And that, in turn, might be the last straw for some Coralville officials who have been frustrated with evasive and deceptive answers Oman has given to serious and persistent questions about the project.

    A couple of City Council members are questioning Oman’s integrity and have wondered publicly whether Coralville is being ‘‘set up’’ to look like it could not hold up its end of the bargain.

    Can project partners — which is what Coralville and The Environmental Project are — survive such accusations? We sure hope so. The Environmental Project should be built, and it should be built in Coralville. The location is superior for drawing the kind of visitor numbers it needs to succeed, and Coralville has certainly proven its loyalty and wherewithal during its years associated with the project.

    Abandoning Coralville would be another huge setback for the project, wasting years of planning for the site chosen along Interstate 80. Also, abandoning Coralville would further erode the already-shaken confidence of many of the project’s biggest supporters.

    One certainty about The Environmental Project is that it will influence the reputation and identity of Iowa. The next few weeks could go a long way toward determining whether that’s in a negative or positive way.