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Coralville Awaits

Some Officials Say Progress Has Been Made

Heather McElvain

Iowa City Press-Citizen

September 20,  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.]

There's still no word on whether the group behind the proposed $180 million rain forest project in Coralville will accept the terms of a draft land transfer agreement from the City Council, but some officials say there has been progress.

It's been four weeks since the City Council issued a term sheet outlining the conditions under which it would transfer 22 acres of land to the Environmental Project for its proposed $180 million enclosed rain forest.

The council said at a work session August 23 that it wanted a response within four weeks, or by today. But City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said the deadline was not set in stone.

"The council's point was that they wanted it as soon as possible," Hayworth said, adding that he expects something in writing from project heads this week.

David Oman, Environ-mental Project executive director, declined to identify when his group would respond to the draft.

"We will finish it when we finish it," he said. "There are issues that need additional attention."

Oman would not discuss which portions of the agreement need attention, but he said he feels both his group and the city have shown there is room for compromise.

"We've indicated our willingness to address issues of concern to the city," he said, adding that the document wasn't presented in a "take it or leave it scenario."

Councilor Tom Gill, a vocal opponent of the project, said he's frustrated with the project's progress and the leadership's communication.

"I don't know what they've got," he said. "We're just talking about air. It's just not logical to be talking about something we know nothing about."

Mayor Jim Fausett said he believes the draft has served to focus talks between the city and the Environmental Project.

"I think we're making progress," he said. "I feel good. I feel that both sides are making a real conscious effort."

Fausett said the main issues the city and project leaders must work out are funding and timing, especially after the project hired a new architect in late August.

"I think at this point we really need to meet with the new architect to get a better idea of what's going to be inside," Fausett said, noting that the architect's plans will impact costs and the timeline.

The land transfer agreement draft holds the project to the basic specifications of a 4½-acre enclosed rain forest, a one million gallon aquarium and an outdoor performance venue, among others.

It also would set timeline and fundraising requirements, with all funds and contracts in place six months after the land is transferred. In addition, it would tie strings to a $50 million Department of Energy grant, preventing the project from using the money in a location other than Coralville.

If the requirements are met, the city would transfer the land, which is southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue, to the project leaders for $1.

Oman said his group wants to reach an agreement soon.

"It matters to us that this be resolved relatively soon or it will begin to impact our overall calendar," he said.

Gill said he believes the project leaders won't sign the agreement.

"My gut feeling is we probably aren't going to hear anything from them, or they'll want to negotiate," he said.