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Rain Forest Organizers Put Pressure on Coralville

City Officials Are Told to Commit to the Environmental Project or Face Losing It

Jennifer Jacobs

Des Moines Register

November 26, 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.]


Demands

    The promoters of the rain forest project are asking Coralville city officials to provide by Dec. 2:

Confirmation that individuals, foundations and companies are committed to donating money.
Commitment of at least 25 acres of land, preferably 30.
Assurance that the land will be transferred by an agreed-upon date, "free of any encumbrances."
The ability to build far enough south of Interstate Highway 80 that traffic noise will be reduced.
Support from the community and city officials, including a written pledge of support from all Coralville City Council members.

The message from rain forest promoters to Coralville city officials: Show us the money and show us the land, or we might explore locating the $180 million project elsewhere.

Days after a U.S. senator turned up the pressure on the slowly progressing rain forest, former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, the chairman of the board of the Environmental Project, wrote a three-page letter giving Coralville officials until Friday to make commitments on land, money and support.

"I think there are other places that have stepped forward with considerable interest and, before, our people would not talk about that because we were trying to work with Coralville," Ray said Friday. "Now if this doesn't work, there's a feeling by the board we should at least listen to what other communities have to say."

Ray's Nov. 18 letter turns the tables on Coralville officials, who have for months expressed doubt that the rain forest's leadership team can successfully complete the project.

Sen. Charles Grassley has also grown impatient with the slow pace. On Nov. 9, Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said he wanted to give the organization until December 2007 to match its entire $50 million federal grant with private donations or lose the grant altogether. The grant has faced widespread criticism as an example of frivolous spending.

The rain forest board is now asking the city of Coralville to live up to its offer of raising $40 million in private money, Ray said.

"We do not have the option of waiting one year to learn whether local sources totaling $40 million will materialize," Ray wrote in a letter addressed to Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett. "The Environmental Project Board requests some confirmation regarding commitments or intent to provide such funds in order to understand the reality of that offer."

Coralville city councilman Tom Gill said Friday that lack of communication between rain forest board members and city officials has been a problem. He also said he suspects the board may be negotiating with Dubuque.

"They want more money, more land, and even less participation," he said of board members. "It's a fact that they're shopping this thing. That's what concerns me. I think they have a better deal somewhere else."

The project was previously targeted for Cedar Rapids, Gill said, but the board found a better offer in Coralville, so they pursued it. Now he fears history is repeating itself.

"Basically, what's happening now is what happened then," he said. "They want us to be the ones who say, 'Please go.' They haven't dealt with us in good faith."

To date, the biggest financial backer has been the U.S. government. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, negotiated in 2003 for a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Project founder Ted Townsend, a Des Moines businessman, has committed $10 million, and an out-of-state energy company has offered an $11 million in-kind partnership.

Land is another issue. Ray's letter states that the rain forest project requires a minimum of 25 acres "in order to ensure meaningful exterior and interior experiences, and viability for the future."

The city has offered public land next to the Iowa River and Interstate Highway 80, but the Coralville City Council has yet to officially approve the land deal. Some council members have suggested looking for other uses for the land because they've seen few signs of progress with the rain forest.

"Support from the community and from city officials is vitally important to building a strong case for a Vision Iowa grant," Ray wrote in the letter.
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Reporter Jared Strong contributed to this article.