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Rain Forest Alternatives? Tiffin, Riverside

Developers Trying to Keep Project in Johnson County

Hieu Pham

Iowa City Press-Citizen

December 10, 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.]

Although the $180 million rain forest might not find a home in Coralville, two developers are trying to keep the Environmental Project in the Johnson County area.

Tiffin and Riverside now are among the eight to nine sites project leaders will consider as alternatives to Coralville.

"It will be a major hit to let the rain forest leave the (Johnson County) area," said Jim Angstman, vice president of Regency Homes and High Development Corp. in Eastern Iowa.

"We have a prime location," he said.

The site would be between Ireland and Jasper avenues near the Interstate 80 exit and be a part of the 200-acre commercial development project called The Villages of Tiffin.

The $200 million development would be the perfect commercial area to include the rain forest, Angstman said.

He said Tiffin mayor Glenn Potter also has lent his support for the project.

Potter did not immediately return phone calls Friday.

In Riverside, developers have proposed putting the rain forest across from the 400-acre Washington County Casino Resort that is under construction.

Glenn Patton, a member of the casino's board of directors and part of the Prudential Partners Real Estate Group, said the location was ideal for environmental and economic reasons.

"It would be a huge economic stimulus that would benefit Washington County and Johnson County," Patton said.

He said people coming to the resort and the rain forest likely would seek hotels and restaurants in Johnson County because Riverside is a less commercial area.

Patton said the resort is considering committing about $10 million and will apply for a Vision Iowa grant to help fund the project.

Because of offers from Tiffin and Riverside -- as well as discussion with city leaders in Dubuque and Des Moines -- David Oman, executive director of The Environmental Project, said he believes the project would pick a new site in the next four to six weeks.

"It's not a major setback," said Oman about the recent announcement from Coralville officials stating that they would not compete with other communities for the project.

Coralville has been the focus of the rain forest 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 80 and First Avenue.

Proponents of the project said it would bring 500 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs to the area and add 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 addition, local officials criticize leaders of The Environmental Project for poor management and lack of communication about major decisions concerning the project.

Josh Schamberger, the president of Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau said he would warn developers in Tiffin and Riverside to "do their homework" before making decisions.

"Their business plan is really nothing more than an extended and printed plan of their vision of a place they've been promoting for the last five years," Schamberger said. "To date, there is still no marketing plan, timeline ... no strategic plan whatsoever."

Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said he still thought the project was an "outstanding idea" but criticized how rain forest leaders failed to include the city and local community in major decisions such as design and fundraising.

Both Schamberger and Hayworth said they were "disappointed" that an agreement could not be made between Coralville and leaders of The Environmental Project.

"It has the potential of being a monumental attraction if properly thought out," said Schamberger.