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Let's Move Forward on Rain Forest


Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 31, 2004

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, 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 Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The $180 million indoor rain forest and education project in Coralville received a huge boost recently when it picked up $50 million in federal funding. This news brings the futuristic Iowa Environmental/Education Project a very significant step closer to reality. The project for a long time had seemed stalled. Now it could be on track for fall groundbreaking.

Our community's frame of reference on the rain forest, as well as the hotel/conference center, now must shift from "Are these projects the right thing?" to "These projects are coming, so how do we make them as good as they can be?"

The scope of this project is difficult to grasp. If we were going to get a $50 million gift from the federal government, this wouldn't have been our first choice on how to spend it. But whether you've been a proponent or opponent of the project or the federal funding for it, it's time to move forward. If project leaders' vision comes true, the rain forest will deliver benefits on several fronts to our community and the entire state for years to come:

Jobs - Hundreds of construction jobs will be just the beginning. There would be hundreds more well-paying permanent jobs.

Education and research - Not only would thousands and thousands of school children be able to visit, the facility would be an important resource for researchers from the University of Iowa and others, project leaders say.

Visitors - Drawing more than a million visitors a year, the rain forest would put our area and the state of Iowa on the map as far as tourism goes, according to advocates.

Project leaders recently met with the Press-Citizen editorial board and talked of their vision. At the end of our two-hour meeting, we had asked them many questions (and we still have more) about how they will realize their vision and other issues. They left us certain that they believe strongly in the project and that many important community leaders are on board. Their board includes University of Iowa President David Skorton, Kirkwood Community College President Norm Nielsen and local McDonald's restaurant owner Kevin O'Brien, just to give a few examples. Project leaders also told us they are very open to public questions and suggestions. They plan to provide updated financing figures and visitor projections in the next few weeks.

We applaud those efforts and call on project leaders to continue efforts to foster community buy-in. They can do that with a well-thought-out business plan in addition to their list of state-of-the-art environmental, architectural and educational initiatives. They should demonstrate that they have a solid plan to generate the $20 million a year needed to offset the operating costs.

Now that this project is gaining momentum, it's time for our community to become as engaged as possible. Individuals and institutions should ask themselves and project leaders how they fit into the vision. Examine project leaders' current concept and put it in context with the Coralville City Council's plans to build a hotel and conference center on adjoining land. Look forward.