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Fund the Unexpected, the Iowa Rain Forest

Editorial Board

Des Moines Register

April 25, 2005

For commentary regarding this editiorial see  Register Endorses Rain Forest, Bloggers Not Impressed and Nicholas Johnson, "The Register's Rain Forest Endorsement: A Summary Response"

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

A rain forest in Iowa?

It's not as crazy-sounding as it once was, with just over half the money raised for the $180 million Environmental Project in Coralville, including a $50 million federal grant.

Now project developers plan to ask the state for $20 million in assistance, which would be a smart investment, both for the tourism dollars the project will draw and the education benefits it will offer.

The problem: There's a lot of competition for the $12 million a year in Iowa's Community Attraction and Tourism program. The 2004 Legislature committed the state to spending a total of $72 million over six years, starting last July 1. All the money for the first budget year, which ends June 30, has been awarded.

Of the $12 million for the next budget year, $5.3 million already is promised to various projects. The largest possible one-year grant is capped at $4 million.

The 13-member Vision Iowa Board, which makes the awards, could start with $4 million for The Environmental Project for next year and earmark the entire $20 million over five years.

The driving philosophy of the project, the brainchild of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, is to celebrate the environment, including enhancing science education. The 4.5-acre rain forest, which would be enclosed in a 20-story-high, caterpillar-like translucent dome, could be an incredible curiosity for visitors from all over the world. Also planned for the site are a re-created wetland and prairie and a freshwater aquarium. The city of Coralville is building an adjacent hotel and conference center.

The project is expected to attract an estimated 1.1 million to 1.5 million people annually, with an annual economic impact of $185 million, said David Oman, The Environmental Project's executive director.

A $20 million award from the state, through Community Attraction and Tourism dollars would help the project attract corporate and foundation support and perhaps allow groundbreaking as soon as late summer.

Or, better yet, replenish the Vision Iowa program by issuing bonds. That $225 million fund, which also required a local match, helped jump-start major attractions all over Iowa. It was wildly successful economic development - the last grant was given out in December - and could be again.

As for a rain forest in Iowa: Sometimes the unexpected is irresistible.