Indoor rain forest may break ground by spring 2005

Jim O'Neal

The Gazette

December 22, 2004, p. 1


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CORALVILLE — The directors of The Environmental Project on Tuesday watered the roots of the $180 million rain forest complex.

    The board, meeting in Coralville at project headquarters, authorized the drafting of detailed construction plans with an eye toward breaking ground in the second quarter of 2005.

    David Oman, executive director of the project, said fund-raising is going well, with commitments totaling about $95 million, including a $50 million federal grant.

    Speaking to reporters at a luncheon after Tuesday’s closed board meeting, Oman said he and other project representatives have held promising discussions with several corporations and foundations, most of them from out of town.

    He declined to identify potential contributors, saying confidentiality is essential to effective fund-raising. But he said he has met with some foundations three or four times and has traveled to Chicago, New York and California’s Silicon Valley to discuss underwriting proposals.

    ‘‘We’re very encouraged,’’ Oman said.

    The board has yet to decide whether to authorize groundbreaking before project funding is fully secured.

    Oman said other non-profit organizations have advised him that starting construction of a project before fund-raising is complete can spur contributions by showing the project is more than a dream.

    Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, who conceived the project and put up $10 million toward its construction, said after the luncheon that backers can now be confident the rain forest will be built.

    ‘‘We’ve got a great project going, and it’s as real as can be,’’ he said. ‘‘Look forward to some big things in 2005.’’

    Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, chairman of the board of directors, which includes Gazette Communications Chairman Joe Hladky, said the directors share Townsend’s vision.

    ‘‘I see the board as more engaged,’’ Ray said. ‘‘They’re really enthusiastic. The more they know, the more they love the project.’’

    Oman said he and other staffers are working with education and science advisers to compile detailed recommendations to present the board at its February meeting.

    Oman also is consulting with other non-profit organizations regarding their policies on access to board meetings.

    He and Ray said the board of The Environmental Project may open portions of its meetings to the press and public to stoke public interest in the project.

    The board, which scheduled quarterly meetings this year, decided Tuesday to meet six times in 2005.

    Also on Tuesday, the board selected its 25th director, Betsy Roe of Pella.

    Roe, a lawyer, serves as a consultant to and ambassador for Central College in Pella. Her husband, David, is the college’s president.

    The Environmental Project, known during its incubation as The Iowa Child Project, will encompass a 4.5-acre indoor rain forest, an aquarium, a theater, interactive galleries, outdoor trails and wetlands. It is to be built just south of Interstate 80 and east of First Avenue in Coralville.

    The target completion date for the project is 2008.