Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Time to Move On


Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 1, 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.]

Don't let the proverbial door hit you on the way out.

That ought to be the message from the city of Coralville to organizers of the proposed $180 million rain forest project.

While this editorial board has tried to open-mindedly seek information about the rain forest project, the latest from the organizers of the project is too much ("Rain forest wants show of support," Nov. 24).

In his Nov. 18 letter to Mayor Jim Fausett, the chair of The Environmental Project and former governor Robert Ray listed a set of "criteria" that include a minimum of 25 acres of prime land from Coralville, written support of the project from all City Council members and $40 million in donations from area residents, foundations and companies.

Ray also admonishes the mayor for Coralville city councilors having the nerve to voice criticism and concerns about the project.

"It was made known to you in September that other communities, institutions, and developers had begun to contact board and staff members with proposals to host the Project," Ray wrote. "Those overtures followed comments by some of your City Council members. I have to assume that you, too, were disappointed by those remarks."

How audacious! Public officials speaking out about concerns over a project that already has a pledge of $50 million of public money and wants the city to donate land worth millions more and likely will go to the state for millions more than that.

Of course, this isn't the first time rain forest project leaders have admonished the city of Coralville. In an e-mail to city officials last year, rain forest project founder Ted Townsend complained that his project should not take second place to the $60 million Marriott hotel and conference center.

"We will not take short shrift to another everyday, uninspiring hotel," Townsend said in the e-mail. "You are so focused on completing that standard project, you are selling short the goose that will lay enormous golden eggs."

There is more than a little irony in Townsend talking about goose eggs, when the rain forest project has thus far laid the big goose egg on fundraising. Coralville officials, and the community as a whole, have grown increasingly wary as month after month has turned into years with no word of new funding.

Where's the rest of the money? That's been the key question for far too long.

Really, it seems to us that the only party in this whole rain forest quagmire -- yes, it has reached quagmire status -- that has looked after the public's interest is the city of Coralville.

Coralville's city administration and councilors deserve credit for giving this project a serious look. Any project that includes $50 million in federal funding and promises hundreds of jobs and more than a million visitors a year deserves a serious look. The 4.5-acre rain forest also would include a more than 1 million gallon aquarium and teaching and arts performance space.

Now Coralville officials have agreed to meet again with project organizers. We hope it's only to tell the rain forest to get out of town. Without knowing where more of the money is coming from, we do not believe it would be wise for the city to go forward. The project has lost momentum. Even Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a key supporter, recently introduced language into a federal appropriation bill that would prevent the project from receiving any more of the $50 million in federal money until the project raises non-federal matching funds.

Environmental Project leaders have in the past few months raised the troubling possibility of debt financing. We don't think that is wise. They also want state money. That's just to build the project. What about operations?

Beyond that, there is a long list of questions that deserve detailed explanation. Those questions aren't even worth asking if there's no more funding. Coralville has prime land. That land is ready to be developed. The city of Coralville would be making a huge mistake by transferring the land for the rain forest.

There's been too much talk and too few results on this project. Let's move on.