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Clouds of Doubt Hang Over Rain Forest
Frustrated by Slow Progress, Some City Leaders are Considering
Alternatives to the $180 Million Project

Madelaine Jerousek and Philip Brasher

Des Moines Register

August 24, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

Iowa City, Ia. - Some Coralville city leaders are casting doubt on the future of the proposed Iowa Environmental Project, a $180 million indoor rain forest and education center off of Interstate Highway 80.

A lack of concrete details or evidence that private money has been raised is leading some City Council members to say they want Coralville to consider alternatives for the valuable 20 acres, which the city had planned to give to the project. They also question recent squabbles with the project's lead design firm, which was dropped over the summer.

"My feeling would be to just walk away," said Jean Newlin Schnake , a City Council member. "It's time to realize we've done enough. We've tried very hard. We had a dream. We had an awesome project outlined. . . . We've been through counseling; now it's time to go see the divorce lawyers."

Council member John Lundell agreed: "It seems like the last two years I've been on the council, there's been a lot of optimism and promise, but not much reality. We need to move ahead and start looking at other options."

David Oman, project administrator for the Iowa Environmental Project, insisted the project is on track, although he declined to say how much of the $90 million still needed for the project had been raised.

"It's an unorthodox project," Oman said. "A project of this scale can take time. Some people are patient; some are not. We are working as hard and as well as the team knows how to deliver a world-class project to the state."

Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said that while he still believes in the project, city leaders are frustrated because they want to move forward on development of the fast-growing area. Coralville plans to invest up to $40 million to develop businesses and restaurants on the land surrounding the planned rain forest, which is proposed to be a world-class tourist attraction.

"It's a very trying time right now," Fausett said. "We feel we have to put a timeline on this. If something is not going to be worked out with the environmental project, we need to do something else with this 20 acres of land and continue with this in a way that's acceptable to the community."

Oman said the project's board of directors plan to hire a new design firm in the coming weeks. Project officials terminated a contract with design firm Chermayeff, Sollogub & Poole, Inc. this summer when the lead architect, Peter Sollogub, returned to his previous firm. An architect from Chermayeff, Sollogub & Poole said the company is still owed money by the Iowa Environmental Project.

Oman declined to comment on the matter, saying lawyers are resolving the issue.

But some Coralville leaders said the dispute is adding to speculation that the project is in trouble.

"The city does not feel this is the time to start changing architects in the middle of the project," Fausett said.

In a letter to the Iowa Environmental Project on Tuesday, Fausett urged planners to retain Sollogub and his new firm.

Sollogub, who has designed aquariums and museums around the world, said he still believes in the Iowa project.

"I believe it has legs and really is an extraordinary idea," he said. "When you do something like this that has never been done before, there are going to be turns in the road."

The rain forest project, which is proposed to open in 2008, received a $50 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. According to the latest quarterly report, $1.97 million had been spent from the federal grant as of June 30, leaving $48.03 million.

Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman in U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley's office, said Grassley has no reason to believe the project won't be completed. But she said the Department of Energy would reclaim grant money for any project that doesn't occur.

Coralville officials earlier this month outlined terms in which the city would turn over the land to the rain forest project. Under the terms, project managers would have to have money in place within six months of signing the deal. Project developers are still negotiating the terms with the city.

Fausett said the city is trying to protect itself.

"We don't want to see five years down the road a project which has failed, and they turn around and sell it to some developer. We have a lot at stake here."