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Can't See Rain Forest for Trees

J.D. Mendenhall

Iowa City Press-Citizen

September 1, 2005

[Not to be confused with Nicholas Johnson, "Can’t See the Forest Or the Trees," Corridor Business Journal, October 4-10, 2004, p. 13.]

[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.]

Yes, I know. Another Coralville rain forest piece. If you're still reading this, you likely fall into one of three categories:

• I like to educate myself and soak up diverse opinions on events that affect my community so that I may make the best-informed decisions I can when I am asked to make such decisions.

• I love reading about the daily drama of the rain forest, about the players bickering with each other and about the massive amounts of money that are being fought for. This is better than "Survivor."

• I have no life.

I might argue that the third category pretty much describes the first two categories, but no matter which category you fit into, I'll probably still tick you off or offend you. You have no idea how much joy this brings me.

I've weighed in before on the rain forest project -- oh, I'm sorry -- "The Environmental Educational Excavational Eminent Domain Project," whose slogan is "We put the 'mental' in environmental!" But recent wrangling, lines drawn in the Iowa River sand and new looming deadlines are just too good to pass up. I had planned on writing about traffic problems in Iowa City, but it wasn't going anywhere. Get it? Play rim shot sound now.

The players

First, let's get a quick update of the main players:

David Oman --Environmental Project executive director. The Sultan of Spin. He says we need to stay the course. He knows exactly how George Bush feels while his ship sinks into a sea of chaos and controversy.

Jim Fausett -- Coralville mayor. Father of runaway Coralville development, such as Coral Ridge Mall, the Wal-Mart Supercenter complex and Cold Stone Creamery. He sees the city's hopes to use rain forest tourist revenues to provide each and every Coralville resident with his own manservant going down the 1-million gallon aquarium drain.

The architects -- first it was Sollugub of Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole of Boston. Then Sollugub left the firm to return to Cambridge Seven Associates of Cambridge, Mass. The project board has now chosen Grimshaw Architects of London. Fausett wanted to go wherever Sollogub went. I'd like to see the architects who designed that ridiculous walkway over Dubuque Street in downtown Iowa City get the job. They and the rain forest people deserve each other.

Chuck Grassley -- United States senator from Iowa who procured the $50 million pork grant that gave the project life, kind of like the lightning bolt for Frankenstein's monster. Currently working on a grant to build a real indoor glacier in University Heights.

Everybody else -- Who cares?

The current crisis

Fausett and the Coralville City Council have set a Sept. 20 deadline for the project leaders to respond to a draft land transfer agreement that would transfer more than 20 acres of city-owned land to the project. But the city wants to attach a few strings to the land transfer.

Although some of these strings already have been leaked to the media, I have obtained a secret copy of all of the conditions the city is demanding for the land transfer. I obtained this highly sensitive document through a well placed, top-level, inside source. The complete conditions:

• The project must be built to the current specifications of a 4.5 acre enclosed rain forest, a 1 million gallon aquarium, an outdoor performance venue and a Hooters restaurant.

• The project cannot use the $50 million grant to build the rain forest somewhere else that might make sense, like the Amazon basin.

• The mayor and city councilors will receive lifetime passes to the rain forest and aquarium, as well as midnight dolphin rides and free wings at Hooters.

The city leaders have stated that if the project leaders don't respond by Sept. 20, the city might just take its land and go home. Project leaders have countered with "my dad can beat up your dad."

Notice how there are very few women involved in this spectacle?

The perfect solution

It would be terribly unfair if I just criticized the project and made fun of the players without offering at least one well-reasoned, fair and feasible solution to the project's problems. I know that I'm running out of room here, but I hope I still have enough space to explain my perfect solution so that all sides can easily agree on and that would ensure the long-term success of the project and the City of Coralville.

The perfect solution for the project is to. ...

J.D. Mendenhall has been an Iowa City resident for more than 20 years and a member of the Writers' Group, a corps of local residents who write monthly opinion columns for the Press-Citizen.