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Rain Forest Hinges on Donor Support

D.M. a Fine Site, But City Must Weigh Its Priorities


Des Moines Register

December 13, 2005

[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.]

If Iowa is going to have a $180 million rain forest, the endeavor has to be able to attract the support of private donors.

The Environmental Project, as the rain forest has come to be known, under one plan would be enclosed in a 20-story translucent dome with a rain forest, aquarium, prairie and educational center. The similar Eden Project in Cornwall, England, has been a huge success, and consultants have said the project could be successful in Iowa, too, drawing more than a million visitors a year.

But the idea remains just an idea. Support for completing the project in Coralville has waned. Now Des Moines leaders are once again considering a project they previously rejected. Dubuque, which has established itself as a tourist magnet with the Mississippi River museum, would also make a good site.

Initially the rain forest was an appealing vision but the project has been revised and scaled down. With a new design team, it's not clear what is planned. The challenge for Ted Townsend, chief advocate of the proposal, is to re-ignite excitement or drop it.

Last year a Register Iowa Poll found that more than half of Iowans 18 to 34 considered the project a good idea. One possibility would be pairing it with Des Moines' Blank Park Zoo, as zoo officials consider ways to transform it into a larger attraction.

Terry Rich, chief executive of the zoo's foundation, would consider some type of partnership if it's fiscally prudent and good for the community, he said. Partners also could include schools, the science center, Iowa State University and the World Food Prize, he said.

"I think it's visionary to look at any good partnerships," he said. "If you say no to everything, you never become a world-class city."

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Councilwoman Chris Hensley said the council would review the rain forest's business plan.

Martha Willits, president and chief executive officer of the Des Moines Partnership, said the business community would be open to locating the rain forest in the capital city. But she also cautioned that Des Moines has many projects just completed or still in the works, from the new arena to the Riverwalk, and it will take time to see if they will be successful.

Indeed, city financing must be weighed against a host of other needs, such as supporting more entertainment options downtown and developing new businesses and more housing options around the city. Those might better fit the city's overall strategy for economic development.

The Environmental Project's supporters are still seeking the required matching money for a $50 million federal grant arranged by Sen. Charles Grassley. Townsend has a fascination with environmental education and has put $10 million of his own dollars where his heart is in backing the project.

What the project now needs most, if it is to go forward, is a firm financial commitment from other Iowans.