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Rain Forest Losing Its Magic
Councilors Disenchanted with Project

Heather McElvain

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 23, 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.]

[And see commentary, Kris, "And the Kitchen Sink," Iowa Pork Forest [blog], August 23, 2005.]

The natives are getting restless in Coralville -- two of five city councilors say they're ready to give up on the Iowa Environmental Project's proposed $180 million indoor rain forest project.

Councilors Jean Newlin Schnake and Tom Gill are concerned that the city has invested too much time and energy without getting much in return.

"It's like we keep following the carrot out there, and once we get there and take a bite, the carrot disappears," Newlin Schnake said.

In an e-mail he sent to a fellow city councilor and the Press-Citizen, Gill wrote he would not support the Iowa Environmental Project plan or a transfer of city land to the project board.

"It is my belief that it is no longer any benefit to the city of Coralville to be associated with the (Iowa Environmental Project)," he wrote. "Quite frankly, people are fed up and want it to go away."

David Oman, executive director of the project, said once the city and the board work out a few issues, such as a proposed contract and selecting a new architect, the councilors can revisit the project and perhaps change their minds.

"We're moving on so many fronts," Oman said. "I expect that we will have an opportunity to talk again soon, and I'll look forward to that."

The Environmental Project has proposed a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest, a 1-million gallon aquarium and an outdoor performance venue to be located on 22 acres southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue.

The city said it would sell the land for $1 if the group meets certain guidelines the city described in a contract it discussed at a recent work session.

The contract would require project leaders to maintain it as an indoor rain forest, aquarium and educational facility for 21 years and as a "museum quality" tourist attraction in the years following, or else have ownership revert to the city.

In addition to other requirements, the contract also sets a timeline and fund-raising requirements: After the council approves the agreement, the project board would have six months to fund the project and have construction contracts in place.

The Iowa Environmental Project board still can review the agreement and suggest any revisions before it's signed.

Oman said he doesn't know when the board will address the contract, but it will first work out which of three architectural firms to hire after it ended its contract with the original firm in June.

He expected the architect question would be answered via a phone conference of board members within the next week or two.

Councilors John Weihe and John Lundell said they still could support the project if the board agrees to the contract.

But Lundell said he's become frustrated with the project in his two years on the council.

"If their response is negative to our proposal, then I think that would be the time to look at what else we can use the land for," Lundell said.

Newlin Schnake also told the Press-Citizen she's ready to discuss other possibilities for the land.

"I think it's probably time for us to say we tried, but it doesn't look like it's in the best interest of the community to proceed at this point," she said.

Councilor Henry Herwig said he believes the council needs to have patience.

"It's a difficult project -- it's pretty immense," he said. "But I think it's still worth waiting for."

Herwig likened the project to the St. Louis Arch, saying projects of that scope are hard to pull off. [For commentary on this analogy between the rain forest and the St. Louis Arch, see Kris, "And the Kitchen Sink," Iowa Pork Forest [blog], August 23, 2005.]

"But I think it will be a great asset as far as educationally," he said.

Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said he thinks it's important for the city and board members to sit down and talk about expectations for the project.

"The city cannot sit on this land for another couple years or so," he said. "I still feel very confident we will be able to work things out, but if not, the city needs to go ahead and decide what we need to do with the area."

Here is the Press-Citizen's list of rain forest stories from 2005 (as of August 24, 2005). These are all available with links from within the text at Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site. But the links below go to the stories as they appear on the Press-Citizen's Web site:
Council wants rain forest input - August 24, 2005

Rain forest losing its magic - August 23, 2005

Jaques Cousteau's grandson on rain forest board - August 11, 2005

Strings tied to rain forest land - August 10, 2005

Rain forest, group set deadlines - July 7, 2005

Rain forest deadline: May 1, 2009 - July 6, 2005

Rain forest project set to hire overseer - June 23, 2005

Coralville land values expected to skyrocket - June 11, 2005

River Landing issues addressed - May 11, 2005

Rain forest education plan outlined - April 21, 2005

Councilors in the dark on rain forest progress - March 12, 2005