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Rain Forest Group Seeks New Funding
2004 Financial Records Released

Heather McElvain

Iowa City Press-Citizen

November 15, 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.]

Environmental Project leaders are working to find alternative funding sources or ways to cut spending after Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called for a freeze on the group's $50 million Department of Energy grant until it could match the funds.

Financial documents released by the Environmental Project on Monday revealed that the majority of its spending in 2004 -- all but $384,000 out of $1.48 million -- came from the grant money.

Opponents of the proposed $180 million enclosed rain forest have complained that the project has been slow to raise the money it needs to fund the project.

Coralville City Council member Jean Sch-nake said the fact that the project was spending the grant money was a concern for her.

"They are spending federal money, yours and my tax dollars, without apparently getting anywhere," Schnake said.

David Oman, the project's executive director, said Grassley's measure, which allows the board two years to match the $50 million, creates an increased sense of discipline. But he said the board hasn't decided how to respond.

"We're just beginning to work on it," Oman said. "This development is only a few days old; we haven't had a lot of time to recalibrate."

Oman said two potential options for funding could be through a line of credit or Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend could bankroll the project.

Oman said Townsend provided the $1.46 million the project survived on in 2001. Townsend also loaned the project $250,000 in interest-free loans in 2004.

Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said he thought either of those options would be viable.

"I think they need to do whatever they can to keep the project going," he said.

The Environmental Project's two largest costs in 2004 were salaries for employees and payments to its former architectural firm.

Some $321,021 went to salaries for six people, five of whom started during 2004 and therefore did not collect full salaries, Oman said. Oman's salary in 2004 was $189,500 plus $5,310 in benefits, an increase from $148,791 in 2002 and $175,000 in 2003.

Oman said the project keeps salary costs below similar projects by maintaining a smaller staff.

"We're running this in a pretty tight way with a very small number of people working very hard," Oman said.

Payment to its former architectural firm represented the Environmental Project's second largest expenditure in 2004.

Of $1.48 million spent, $320,977 went to Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole. The project dropped that firm in June and now is working with Grimshaw Architects of London.

But Oman said money paid to Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole is not lost.

"Some of the ideas that came from the architect obviously got carried forward," he said.

Oman said the project would likely spend less on the architect in 2005 than it did in 2004.

Other major expenditures in 2004 included $171,742 to Environmental Enterprises in Playa Del Rey, Calif., for environmental consulting, $134,381 to Trilix in Urbandale for marketing and $65,000 to lobbyists.

Oman said it's important to think about what his group is trying to accomplish when reviewing its finances.

"This is a sizeable project. We're building a facility that's never been built before anywhere," he said. "There's not a blueprint. There's not a script."

The Environmental Project is planned to anchor the Iowa River Landing southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue and would include a 4.5-acre rain forest, a one million gallon aquarium and teaching space.

Oman said there was a "lot of good work" done in 2004, including securing the Department of Energy Grant.