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State Should Not Give Funds to Rain Forest


Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 14, 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.]

The executive director of the rain forest project says he believes the project will pick a new site in the next four to six weeks ("Tiffin and Riverside rain forest alternatives," Dec. 10). That's just in time for the state legislative session, and if we look into our crystal ball, it seems a fairly good possibility that part of the new rain forest plan will include some type of state funding.

We think it's a bad idea for the state to provide any funding. As a matter of fact, we think it's a bad idea for any officials to provide any more public money for the rain forest project until it has raised a substantial amount of private money.

Until last week, land owned by the city of Coralville south of Interstate 80 and east of First Avenue was the proposed site for the $180 million project, officially known as The Environmental Project. But now Coralville, unhappy with the project's progress, said it would begin looking at other development options for its land. The project said it would begin considering other sites. That's what brings Tiffin and Riverside and others into the picture.

But location isn't really the issue. The biggest problem facing the rain forest project is it only has raised about $90 million of the $180 million it would cost to build the project, which includes a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium, and classroom and art performance space on 20-some acres, at least in its Coralville incarnation. Fundraising for the project has been stalled for nearly two years, since the project landed $50 million in federal funding.

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 the $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.

We don't think those non-federal matching funds should be state monies, tax-increment financing or taking out loans secured by the value of public property. This project needs to have substantial private funding. We fear that since the project hasn't had much success there, it will go back to the public well. We can't stop them from asking, but our representatives can, and should, tell them no.

What the rain forest project must do from here is simple: raise substantial private money.

We are not against economic development, far from it. We're not against grand visions, either. But when it comes to public money, we like to balance our enthusiasm for growth and visions against the notion that government's role, first and foremost, is to provide essential services. To say that anything about the rain forest project is essential is a stretch.

In this time of war, with the country just months removed from a massive natural disaster, with growing concerns about essential areas such as health care and education, the rain forest must find substantial private funding.