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Let the Rain-Forest Buyer Beware

Editorial Board

The Daily Iowan

November 28, 2005

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

The promise of an indoor rain forest in Coralville never stirred within us a great deal of enthusiasm, but the behavior of the leadership of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project of late has hardly been helping its case - and it points to an underlying problem regarding how large projects and Iowa's communities interact.

From the beginning, the rain forest has been a top-down endeavor - the people of Coralville did not come up with the idea, nor was theirs the first city to be considered by the people who did. This hardly makes the project unique, as cities are often left attempting to snare the big ideas of private developers - and the big money that comes with them. This can also place the burden on cities to keep the projects in town - the project only settled on Coralville after striking out with Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, and project-board Chairman Robert Ray is now threatening to pursue "other alternatives" if the city does not fulfill a series of conditions.

The terms outlined in Ray's letter are outrageous. Not only do they go beyond the original agreement that brought the project to Coralville - the city must now provide 25-30 acres of land, for example, instead of the 22 originally agreed upon - but the rain-forest organizers have shown little sign of reciprocal commitment to the city.

The city is still waiting for an outline of the project's progress and plans for development, which it had asked for in August. Meanwhile, the $50 million federal grant, which has provided the majority of the project's funding and expenses to date, has become conditional on the project's ability to raise $50 million more over the next two years. Ray's desire for a commitment by Coralville to raise $40 million for the project, which may or may not include the $30 million already invested by the city, seems particularly suspect.

Other than the project's federal funding being given a caveat that any successful project should be easily able to satisfy in any case, nothing has changed to justify this litany of new conditions. Rain-forest organizers are essentially demanding that the Coralville City Council avow its commitment to the project while keeping the council in the dark regarding its viability and progress.

Coralville has already been unbelievably patient with the rain forest's organizers, more so than we would have preferred. It would be irresponsible for the city to grant further concessions to the directors of an enterprise that must still prove itself to be a workable project rather than simply an interesting idea. The manner in which its organizers have conducted themselves is unacceptable for any project: Rather than present a transparent, serious business plan for the rain forest's construction and operation, they have offered vague promises, now coupled with veiled threats.

We have long been skeptical of the rain-forest concept, but the real problem goes deeper. So long as large developers can threaten to take their business elsewhere if their terms are not met, communities will not see their interests very well served. For something as problematic as the rain forest has shown itself, we may simply say good riddance. Coralville's experience, however, should demonstrate the need for a reassessment of how large developments should be managed in the future.