Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Environmental Project Founder Has High Hopes

John Butters

Lone Tree Reporter Online

May 4, 2006

[originally published at]

[Note: This material is copyright by John Butters and the Lone Tree Reporter Online, 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 copyright owners.]

Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, founder of the Environmental Project, wants to place Iowa roots under a project he considers essential to humanity's hopes for peace.

Townsend and other top executives of The Environmental Project visited Riverside April 26 to describe their plan to build a 5 acre, enclosed rainforest near one of four Iowa communities: Pella, Grinnell, Tiffin or Riverside. Site selection could come as early as June, said Executive Director David Oman.

Oman and other principals in the project provided a slide presentation to community officials and interested residents in an unfinished room of the building that will soon house the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort.

The Rainforest, Townsend said, represents more than simply a public attraction. He describes it as a global, ecological, learning environment located in Iowa.

"Globalization will change the world in which we live. Humanity needs to learn a new way of life on this earth. We need to learn how to live in peace and harmony with other peoples and lifestyles around us," he said.

Projects like the Rainforest can help, Townsend says, by using modern technology to help people understand how life works and how they can live in harmony with nature.

"This is a different approach to learning. It is immersion-learning. People will come here and learn about the environment and take that learning with them," he said.

With backing from political heavyweights like former Governor Bob Ray and Senator Charles Grassley, the $155 million project has gained federal funding and statewide support. Even so, the project's promoters have said they would need another $25 million in local funding to make the project viable.

Riverside has made the short list of sites because it offers three of four necessary components; available land, access from major highways and proximity to a large university. The fourth element, described as ambience, is more difficult to define.

The project's executive director, David Oman, said his group needs community partners they can work with; an important element on a project of this size.

Riverside city officials are generally supportive of the project, but have reservations about the size of the financial commitment. Riverside Mayor Bill Poch says his community needs to hear more.

"I'm excited that we have been chosen as one of the sites. But no one is going to get on board until the Rainforest's administration comes to the city council and makes a presentation. Then we can take it to the residents with a recommendation," he said.

"This affects the whole county, too. They need to make a presentation to the residents of Washington County. They might be surprised at the people who support it. But until that happens, I don't think they'll support it," Poch said.

The project has found some local and financial support in Riverside from Dan Kehl, Chief Executive Officer of the Riverside Casino. Kehl has said that the casino has land under option that could be used for the rainforest project. He and other community members believe that placing the Rainforest near the casino, scheduled to open in September, would substantially increase the success of both.

"The two projects don't appear complimentary, but the synergy between the two would create a critical mass,"
said Kehl.

Iowa City realtor and developer Glenn Patton shares that vision. He has been an advocate for the rainforest project from its inception, and helped arrange last week's presentation to community leaders. Patton's Corridor South Development Group has tried to buy land from the City of Riverside to develop a high-end retail and housing complex near the casino. In the process, he has garnered commitments from national hotel and restaurant companies, pending acquisition of the necessary land.

"We feel the synergies that would be created between these two anchors, The Riverside Casino and Golf Resort and the Rainforest, would be tremendous. There is a possibility that they could each draw in excess of a million people each year. Together, they could double the number of people coming to Riverside." Patton said.

In addition to that, Patton sees other commercial developments springing up near the two major attractions, including an indoor/outdoor water park.

"All the communities around it will benefit as well. Kalona, Washington and Lone Tree will all have more opportunities to develop," he said.

The slide presentation gave an indication of how many people might conceivably visit the combined ventures. A similar project located in England, The Eden Project, has 1.2 million visitors each year. In comparison, Des Moines' Adventureland draws 500,000 people each year, the Amana Colonies host 800,000 guests and the Iowa State Fair attracts 1 million visitors annually.

In regard to Riverside's drawing power, Oman said its location on the interstate grid puts it within a day's drive of 37 million people. That essential component, ease of access, keeps Riverside near the top of the list. Combining the location with the casino's expected drawing power makes the project a magnet for continuing development, Oman said.

There is little doubt that the synergies created between the casino and the rainforest would make Riverside a major tourist destination. But wherever the Rainforest might be located, it has the potential to create a global presence for Iowa.