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Coralville Quickly Regroups on River District

John Kenyon

Corridor Business Journal

April 10, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Corridor Business Journal, 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 Corridor Business Journal.]

Taking a page from the playbook of nearby communities like Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, the city of Coralville plans to initiate a community planning process that should result in a new feature for the city’s Iowa River Landing District.

The feature will replace The Environmental Project, the indoor rain forest and aquarium that flirted with the city for years before finally announcing  two weeks ago that it would locate elsewhere.

Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, will help the city with the planning process. He said it is important that the process be inclusive, diverse, accountable and credible.

“All of those things were significant challenges for The Environmental Project,” he said. “One of the main reasons the project never really went anywhere in this community is that the leadership didn’t do a good job of being inclusive and transparent and accountable.”

The Environmental Project was to have been the jewel in the crown of the new district, but as time passed and organizers had trouble raising funds beyond the $50 million federal grant that started what was to have been a $180 million fund-raising effort, relations between city officials and project leadership soured.

Mr. Schamberger said that he had been working with Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth and the city council for the past five years to locate something in the space at the corner of First Avenue and Interstate 80.

“Last year when it was very obvious that the relationship was deteriorating very quickly between Environmental Project management and the community, we started having discussions about that 25-acre spot in the district. What is the best way to draw an attractor, rather than an attraction?”

Mr. Schamberger said an attraction is something people visit when they are already there; an attractor is something that draws visitors on its own.

“It’s a destination point,” he said, noting that people go to Chicago to visit Navy Pier, to Altoona to visit Adventureland or to Minneapolis to shop at Mall of America.

At the same time these discussions about alternatives to the rain forest were taking place, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque were undergoing what were seen a successful community planning processes.

“We saw and watched the excitement they generated in the communities,” he said, particularly noting the Fifteen in 5 process in Cedar Rapids that yielded a list of 15 things to improve that city and Linn County over the next five years.

Mr. Schamberger chairs a committee looking at bringing light rail service to the Corridor, and he said that experience has given him first-hand experience with the kind of process Coralville will under take.

“I’ve seen first hand the excitement and enthusiasm that Linn County and Johnson County residents have in being able to participate in these community developments,” he said.

The Coralville City Council approved a process last month that will involve significant community input over the coming months. Between now and late April, an 18-person steering committee will be formed that will include Coralville residents, as well as representatives from North Liberty, Iowa City, the University of Iowa, the county, students, north Corridor residents and others.

The group will be guided in part by work done by this and previous city councils to identify objectives for the district, which is seen as the primary gateway into the community. Those objectives, coupled with community input and work done by the steering committee all will be used to create a request for proposals (RFP) that will be made available to developers nationwide.

“In August and September we’ll hang our hat on an RFP that speaks to the goals and objectives and atmosphere that the community wants to see on this land, the hook being that the developer would be able to have a similar infrastructure and land deal as was offered to The Environmental Project,” Mr. Schamberger said.

That deal involved the project being given the land and seeing certain infrastructure needs met.

“I have been flooded with phone calls, e-mails and people dropping in to leave their name and say they are willing to participate” in the planning process, Mr. Schamberger said. “Hopefully we will be able to have several proposals sent to us by developers from around the country that are a fit.”

Several other pieces of the 150-acre district are falling into place. The 280-room Coralville Marriott Hotel and Convention Center is expected to open in August, while other commercial and retail space is still in the planning stages, said Assistant City Administrator Ellen Habel.

Road projects, including upgrades to First Avenue and Ninth Street, will be complete by July 1.

Other developments will be under way soon, she said, including the remodeling of space for Johnson County Historical Society and the Antique Car Museum of Iowa, both on Quarry Road.