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City's Rainforest Bid Still in Play

Dubuque's Vision of a Scaled-Down Project Has Not Been Dismissed

M.D. Kittle

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

March 30, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, 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 Dubuque Telegraph Herald.]

The rainforest isn't dead in Dubuque just yet.

Developers behind the long-awaited - and long- debated - indoor rainforest project on Wednesday whittled down the list of site finalists to four Iowa cities.

While Dubuque didn't make that cut, the city remains in the hunt in a class all its own, according to an executive for the $180 million plan.

"Dubuque is in the running, in its own category," said David Oman, executive director of The Environmental Project.

The group's board of directors agreed to continue negotiations with Dubuque on the city's proposal to combine the rainforest with the next phase of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium.

Oman said the board hopes to make its final site decision in May.

Board members announced that Pella, Grinnell, Tiffin and Riverside are finalists among a long list of Iowa cities vying for the proposed 41/2-acre indoor rainforest - with a 1-million gallon aquarium, a restored prairie project and educational classrooms.

Definitively off the list is Coralville, the initial site of the proposed development before negotiations bogged down and eventually broke off.

The four finalists each met the fundamental criteria of land, at least doubling the 22 acres Coralville had offered.

Dubuque, officials say, is dancing to its own drummer in its approach to the rainforest. City and museum representatives have made it clear they see the project as a complement to the museum, not a dominant piece.

"We've never said we're in competition for the entire project," said City Manager Mike Van Milligen. "What we have proposed to The Environmental Project is they be partners in the America's River Phase II."

Oman said the board respects Dubuque's direction and will decide whether it wants to scale down its grander vision of the rain forest to fit the museum's growth plan.

Jerry Enzler, executive director of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, did not return a phone call from the Telegraph Herald Wednesday. He has insisted any merger of concepts maintains the educational integrity of Dubuque's nationally recognized attraction.

The other proposals seem to suggest a broader appeal. Pella's idea is to marry the rain forest project with a bigger development, including condominiums, and indoor water park and retail and hotel space next to a golf course.

Riverside's proposal would make the rain forest neighbors with a casino now under construction. In Tiffin, the project would accompany a 200-acre commercial and residential development close to Interstate 80.

"We were thrilled with the interest shown by these communities and the quality of their proposals - it speaks directly to the potential that many Iowans see in the national project," said former governor Robert D. Ray, chairman of The Environmental Project board.

Project officials estimate the rain forest would attract 1.5 million visitors each year and annually inject $187 million into the state economy.

But a rain forest in Iowa, the butt of late-night comedian jokes and the fiscal scorn of many in Congress, has been stalled by a lack of private contributions. Organizers have raised about $90 million, including a $50 million federal grant secured in 2003 by Sen. Charles Grassley.

Grassley has said he supports the project but introduced legislation that would require project officials to raise the money needed by 2007 or lose out on the federal funding.