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Clearing Air on Environmental Project


The Gazette

April 24, 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.]

    FISSURES are apparent in the relationship between Coralville community leaders and promoters of The Environmental Project ó the proposed complex that would include a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest. Thatís not unexpected in a project of this complexity. But itís important those fissures get repaired quickly, and itís incumbent upon Environmental Project Director David Oman and his team to do much of the compromising.

    Coralville leaders, particularly those in local government, must protect the publicís interest. Given their staunch support for the project, both verbally and financially, their demands for information and transparency in project decisions are more than reasonable.

    City leaders wooed the project to Coralville, then spent $14.3 million to acquire property for the project, just south of Interstate 80 on a bend in the Iowa River. It will spend millions more on infrastructure.

    Coralville is moving forward with its plans to build a city-owned, $53.87 million, 286-bed hotel and conference center, which will be next door to the rain forest, complementing and capitalizing on the complex. The city also is expected to co-sign a grant request for $20 million from the stateís Community Attraction and Tourism program.

    The city has earned the right to be an equal partner in a project that has evolved from a private undertaking to a very public project. (Federal, state and local governments account for a vast majority of project financing spent and promised so far.) But city officials and council members say they have been denied too much information.

    Mostly, city officials want to verify the project is progressing and not have to settle simply for words of reassurance from project planners. Their worries are understandable. The application for state funding as yet does not contain essential information such as a five-year financial projection, fundraising or marketing plans or a budget.

    Some information on fundraising specifics may not be public record, but there should be enough trust between The Environmental Project staff and city staff for information to be shared.

    Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth says communication has improved in the last few weeks. Heís understandably hesitant to be publicly critical. Hayworth serves on the projectís community advisory committee, but his involvement in executive-level project meetings likely would soothe conflicts substantially.

    The Environmental Project, envisioned as a learning laboratory and tourist destination, will be a great boon to Coralville, the Technology Corridor and the state. It will create local jobs and bring national and international attention to Iowa. It will provide hands-on learning for students and training for teachers. It is a bold plan worth completing.

    By choosing to be a public project, rather than a private development, planners have obligated themselves to be as open and forthright as possibly with Iowans, especially those in whose back yard the project will be built.