Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Is Rainforest in Forecast?

M. D. Kittle

Dubuque Telegraph Herald

December 10, 2005

[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.]

Now that Coralville has bowed out of Iowa's controversial rainforest project, the head of Dubuque's celebrated museum says the city is in the "driver's seat."

But Jerry Enzler stresses the city and National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium aren't about to get involved in a bidding war for a $180 million development some paint as a golden opportunity and others cast as a taxpayer boondoggle.

Enzler, the executive director of the riverfront attraction, on Friday spoke in terms of "fit" and compatibility in addressing the potential of a marriage of the proposed rain forest project and Dubuque's museum.

"We are going to be very cautious," he said. "If we consider allowing The Environmental Project being part of our grand vision, we'd have to make sure it makes sense, philosophically and the other kind of 'cents.'"

The city of Coralville, the designated site of the rainforest concept, on Thursday effectively pulled out of the process, setting aside its 22 acres near Interstate 80 for other development.

Ongoing negotiations between the city and The Environmental Project broke down with both sides failing to agree on a land transfer, funding or control over the rainforest.

David Oman, executive director of the project, said Coralville remains a site under consideration, along with Dubuque, Des Moines and about six other Iowa cities. He said the organization's board, chaired by former Iowa governor Robert Ray, will meet Tuesday to discuss a process for site selection.

"I know it will take weeks, but I'm hoping it won't take months," Oman said of the process. "What we need now is to identify a great site and to have a strong working relationship with that community."

Oman said he would not "handicap" any of the offers and overtures the board has received, but did say Dubuque would make sense for the rainforest concept.

"Dubuque has created a spectacular facility in its own right that would be attractive to us," he said of the museum and aquarium. "Secondly, Dubuque has the confidence of having taken some risks and pulled it off. I respect that."

Enzler says not so fast. The museum, the cornerstone of Dubuque's $188 million riverfront facelift, has expansion in mind - with or without a rainforest. Enzler and other city officials assert that if The Environmental Project wants to make Dubuque home, the project must meet Dubuque's needs.

"We're not holding our breath or hanging our hat on trying to get the rainforest here," Enzler said. "This is their last opportunity if they want to be considered part of what we're doing."

City Manager Mike Van Milligen, who corresponded with The Environmental Project until Coralville threatened legal action against Dubuque if it interfered further, said any dialogue has to involve a suitable fit.

"The museum for us is a proven commodity that wants to grow," Van Milligen said.

A feasibility study points to a possible $20 million expansion of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium over time. One plan calls for doubling the size of the existing footprint to showcase exhibits on America's rivers and seas, Enzler said. Museum officials would like to expand the concept even further, to include an international gallery.

That's where the rainforest concept could come in, Enzler said, if it works in concert with the museum.

And then there's the matter of reputation. The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium is an internationally recognized facility that has welcomed some 700,000 visitors since opening 28 months ago.

The Environmental Project, on the other hand, has been lambasted by Congressional leaders, even showcased on the NBC drama "The West Wing," as a poster child for pork barrel spending. A rainforest museum in Iowa, to its critics, sounds strange enough; but the $50 million in pledged federal funding is enough to make even lukewarm fiscal conservatives cringe.

"We are concerned about the image," Enzler said, adding that the rainforest project's mission has been "misunderstood" or miscommunicated from its inception.

"We do not want to do anything to bring any kind of question to Dubuque or to our museum," Enzler said. "Too many people have worked too hard. We have our eyes wide open."

Officials do estimate the construction of the rainforest project would create more than 500 jobs and 200 permanent positions. Projections indicate the attraction would draw up to 1.5 million visitors each year and inject an estimated $187 million annually into the state economy.

Those numbers are not lost on Dubuque's city manager.

"Together, we can bring these projects to a successful conclusion in a timely fashion, creating an Iowa-based, internationally acclaimed environmental education facility with a total investment in excess of $300 million," Van Milligen wrote in a letter to project developers.