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Progress But Lingering Problems


The Gazette

April 2, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    A bit of optimism has surrounded The Environmental Project the past week, a promising change from the shroud of doubt the indoor rain forest project has endured most of the past year.

    Four communities have won favored status from the projectís board and have been asked to secure $25 million in local funds to go toward the $180 million rain forest. Community leaders in Tiffin, Riverside, Grinnell and Pella expressed excitement at the prospect The Environmental Project could land in their town, and all are busy trying to meet a six-week fundraising deadline.

    As part of the dwindling body of supporters for the project, we welcome the positive news. Itís refreshing to see Iowans reminded of the incredible potential of this project.

    Yes, itís stirred enough controversy to sully Iowaís reputation and turn many early supporters into skeptics. Project leadership and execution has floundered too often, and it remains a bitter disappointment that the project couldnít be salvaged at a near-perfect site in Coralville.

    But all of the practical problems have never dulled the luster of the concept, the dream. The Environmental Project is about Iowa thinking big, for a change. Itís about Iowa wanting a world-class attraction, a unique mix of science, education, tourism and research. Few Iowa projects have ever so excited the stateís most innovative minds, several of whom sit on the board overseeing the project.

    Until The Environmental Project is either built or dead, Iowans cannot forget what this could be, and last weekís excitement helped restore some focus to that potential.

    However, as much as we were buoyed by the positive news, we also were disappointed by what wasnít part of the news. The Environmental Project has seemingly made another step forward without addressing the shortcomings that plagued the project while it was being planned in Coralville for the last five years.

    Itís hard to imagine how these communities can garner $25 million in commitments for a project that has no business plan, no marketing plan and no fundraising plan. Those basic components of project planning should have been done long ago, yet by all accounts still have not been.

    Investors could signal interest in the concept, but their financial backing likely will come with caveats that more definitive plans be in place. Likewise, local governments could direct gambling revenues, tax breaks, land gifts, hotel-motel tax collections or other tax money at the projects. But much of that kind of support, too, almost certainly would have to come with benchmarks for project completion, job creation, capital investment, etc.

    No $25 million check awaits project leaders six weeks from now.

    Tiffin, Riverside, Grinnell and Pella have accepted some responsibility given to them by The Environmental Project. By doing so, they also accepted some responsibility toward the public trust ó a public that already has $50 million of federal funds invested in the project and could see much more of its tax money headed that way.

    These communities have the ability to demand of The Environmental Project the kind of communication, accountability and transparency that project leaders never afforded Coralville, and that the taxpayers deserve.