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Rain Forest, Coralville Start Shopping Around

Project Officials to Talk With Other Cities

Gregg Hennigan

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 9, 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 prospect of a $180 million rain forest being built in Coralville suffered a serious and possibly fatal setback Thursday as project leaders told city officials they will start talking with other cities.

Coralville officials, in turn, said they would not compete with other communities for the project.

Councilor John Lundell, however, declined to label the relationship as dead.

"If they speak to other communities and come to the realization that we think they should, that we have the ideal location, then we'll continue to talk to them," he said. "But at this stage, we're ready to look in other directions."

The two sides talked Thursday morning during a conference call. The meeting was meant to address the strained relations between leaders of the project, known as The Environmental Project, and the city.

Coralville has been the focus of the proposed project since 2000. Plans call for an enclosed 4.5-acre rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium, and classroom and art performance space on 22 acres southeast of Interstate Highway 80 and First Avenue.

Proponents of the project said it would bring 500 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs to the area and up to 1.5 million visitors, creating $187 million in economic activity. Critics have questioned whether there is enough private support to fund the project.

In recent months, organizers of The Environmental Project and city officials have quarreled over the land and the city's funding contributions. Project leaders had asked for assurances from the city by Dec. 2 that it could provide at least 25 acres of land farther south of the interstate and raise $40 million.

Those issues were the focus of Thursday's hour-long meeting that was closed to the public and included about 10 city and project officials.

Lundell, who represented Coralville on the conference call along with Councilor Tom Gill and City Administrator Kelly Hayworth, said they led off by saying they did not oppose the project but rather were concerned about how they could make it happen.

He said they told project officials that providing more land was not a deal breaker, but the money did pose a problem.

The city has spent about $17 million acquiring and improving the land and relocating businesses at the site, which also will be the home of an unrelated hotel project. But Environmental Project leaders do not count that as local support and are looking for help in raising $40 million more in cash.

Lundell said that figure was beyond the city's and community's capabilities.

"I think that's kind of disrespectful that they won't recognize the incredible commitment we've already put forward," he said.

David Oman, the project's executive director, said officials do appreciate that the city has spent the money on the land, but he said he thought the city was going to buy it regardless of the rain forest. He added that officials had discussed with the city its helping to raise $40 million specifically for the project.

"None of the monies used for land acquisition help us fund our capital budget," Oman said.

He said project leaders felt the need to look elsewhere because they have received "interesting" offers from eight to nine other communities that included land and financial proposals. He said Des Moines and Dubuque were among those that had expressed interest.

Oman said he could not handicap the chances of the rain forest still ending up in Coralville, but said it's "utterly" the city's call if it wants to remain in consideration.

State Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, listened in on the call and said he thought that was like someone proposing marriage but wanting to keep seeing other people.

"I don't know about you, but I wouldn't marry someone who said, I'm going to play the field and then get back to you," said Jacoby, who sat on the Coralville City Council when the city first considered the rain forest project.

Lundell said the city would not get into a bidding war with other communities, but they are not taking themselves out of the running, either. Rather, they'll keep their offer as is and let the location stand on its own merits, he said.

But the likelihood of The Environmental Project calling Coralville home seems to have decreased dramatically. Lundell said the city offered to give a presentation on the current state of the Coralville location at the project's board meeting next Tuesday but was told the agenda was full.

"There's some disappointment that maybe we finally reached the point where we agreed to go in different directions," he said.