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Rain Forest Funding Still Big Question


Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 13, 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.]

Why would the indoor rain forest project be any more viable in Tiffin or Riverside than it has been in Coralville? That's the $90 million question.

And it is one that officials in both communities ought to have some pretty darned solid answers to before they invest much time or energy -- or money -- in the project.

Tiffin and Riverside are among many sites rain forest project leaders say they are looking at as alternatives to Coralville ("Tiffin and Riverside rain forest alternatives," Dec. 10). Developers in the towns seem eager to pursue the possibility.

To quickly review, plans for the rain forest, officially known as The Environmental Project, have called for a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium, and classroom and art performance space on 20-some acres southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue. Project leaders say the rain forest would bring hundreds of construction jobs and permanent jobs to the area and more than a million visitors a year.

Opponents question the job and visitor numbers, say the project is a first-rate boondoggle and criticize Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, for his role in obtaining $50 million in federal funds for the project. Grassley has since taken action to require the project to match the federal money with non-federal funds before spending any more of it.

Last week, the city of Coralville, unhappy with the project's progress, said it would begin looking at other development options for its land. Project officials said they would begin considering other sites. That's what brings Tiffin and Riverside and others into the picture.

The problem is the rain forest project carries a $180 million price tag but, last we heard, only has raised about $90 million. That's the biggest problem, anyway. And it's been the biggest problem for almost two years now.

It's not the only problem, though. As the folks in Coralville have found, it's easy to get tangled up in the rain forest. Coralville officials have done an excellent job of keeping their eyes on the ball. They've kept the $60 million hotel and conference center, which also is on the land south of I-80 and east of First Avenue, on track. They've also approached the rain forest project in a way that has looked out for the best interest of taxpayers.

Both Tiffin and Riverside have huge development projects already in the works. The Villages at Tiffin is a $200 million, 200-acre development that includes an outlet mall and water park. The Catfish Bend Casino in Riverside is a more than $100 million project that includes a casino, hotel and golf course. We want to see those projects succeed. We're concerned that the rain forest will be a huge distraction or, perhaps, even an entanglement. We're also concerned that project leaders will want those communities to pony up some cash or some other type of financing. That would be a mistake.

But where's the money coming from? That's the $90 million question.