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Editorial Board

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 30, 2005

[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.]

After landing a $50 million federal gift early last year, officials of Coralville's proposed Environmental Project have been busy seeking money from private sources. They haven't had much luck.

Now they've gone to state officials, requesting $20 million in Vision Iowa grants. It's a troubling development.

Still short

Optimists will say the rain forest project already possesses more than half of the $180 million it needs. Realists will say the project has garnered most of those dollars from a controversial federal government grant, project brainchild Ted Townsend and the city of Coralville's promises. It's still $85 million short. Project organizers primarily want the state dollars so they can start building something -- a yet again delayed groundbreaking could occur next summer with some state money.

In short, organizers want to dog-and-pony it. That's a gamble; if their marketing for corporate and foundation support is unsuccessful, the metro area could be sitting with an empty building or a half-finished project. That's a great waste of prime real estate. Before breaking ground, the project really needs to have far more private funding in place.

Dollars better spent elsewhere?

State officials certainly need to be wary of shorting other communities by placing their bets on the rain forest. The state's Community Attraction and Tourism program has about $12 million a year through 2010. About $17.3 million already has been promised. Environmental Project officials would like $4 million annually. That leaves just half of what the Legislature set aside to help communities across Iowa. Many of those cities and counties desperately could use the dollars to invest in attractions that "fit the spot."

Such money has proven to be a boon for those communities that coordinate their efforts to generate local and regional interest. Dubuque is a good example: Its water park and hotel, riverboat, Mississippi River museum, revitalized downtown and bluff-side shopping square -- partially supported by state grants -- has become a thriving weekend destination for residents of four states.

Overcautious or realistic?

But project organizers still haven't fully sold this community on the rain forest. There are vocal supporters, and there always will be naysayers. Yet the great bulk of residents in between remain unconvinced that the project can become all that it's touted.

Without doubt, there will be short-term benefits should building begin, as construction workers and contractors will have to stay and eat somewhere. But an estimated 1.1 million to 1.5 million visitors annually, with an annual economic impact of $185 million? Too many still think of the rain forest as "Invasion Iowa" on a large scale. Seeing Fortune 500 companies and national foundations sold on the project, however, certainly would help reverse that.

Indeed, if state dollars were the last chunk of the $180 million that organizers needed, we'd call for the funding. The support of private investors and foundations would indicate that the community was being far too cautious. But until that time, too many questions remain, and there's no point in committing good money for a project that so many locals -- and apparently investors -- remain wary of it.