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Grassley Puts Limits on Rainforest Spending
Bill Would Freeze Grant, Demand More Fundraising

Perry Beeman

November 10, 2005

And see the Register's "Rainforest Timeline," below.

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Des Moines Register.]

The Iowa rain forest project planned for Coralville would not be allowed to spend any more of its much-ridiculed $50 million federal grant until its backers raise a like amount on their own, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley said Wednesday.

"I want to make sure the tax money isn't frittered away by not having the project in place someday," Grassley said.

Besides freezing spending from a grant he won for the project in 2003, Grassley has given the Environmental Project two years to come up with $50 million in cash or in-kind services - or lose all federal aid. He included the conditions in an appropriations bill expected to be approved by Congress today and sent to President Bush, who is expected to sign the bill.

The $180 million indoor rain forest and aquarium complex would lose its grant if Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, who conceived the project, and other backers don't match the $50 million by Dec. 1, 2007. The original grant has drawn wide derision, from criticism as a prime example of wasteful federal spending to late-night TV jokes about the folly of creating a rain forest in Iowa.

The educational project, pitched as a way to draw millions of tourists to the state, had an important ally in Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, but he indicated Wednesday that his patience is wearing thin.

"They had set certain dates for things to happen, and it didn't seem like they were happening," Grassley said in a phone interview. "The recent controversy in Coralville also played a role," he said, alluding to Coralville officials' criticism of delays in raising money.

The bill also opens the door for the Environmental Project to put the rain forest elsewhere in Iowa, if talks with Coralville fizzle.

Along I-80

The project is planned along Interstate Highway 80 at Coralville, but some city leaders have grown tired of waiting for financing for the work to gel.

The match can be cash or in-kind services but cannot include the land. Project Executive Director David Oman said the project today has only an unnamed energy firm's pledge of up to $10 million in in-kind services to apply to the match.

However, Oman added that Grassley's timetable is generous and should help close deals with the project's potential financial backers. "This puts a fuse on the discussion," Oman said. "This will be helpful to us."

Oman said the deadline is fair because it is similar to those applied to other projects that have won federal energy grants. He declined to comment about whether his board is considering other sites for the 20-story complex.

"We are absolutely still talking about Coralville," said Oman, who met twice with City Manager Kelly Hayworth in the past two days.

Hayworth said Grassley's move wasn't a surprise, or even troubling.

"I don't know that the deadline is a problem," he said. "If the money wasn't raised within two years, we wouldn't have a project anyway. I don't see it as a major hurdle."

Hayworth added that he expects a decision on the terms of the land transfer within the next two weeks. It would take some time to draft the documents after that. He declined to comment on the language allowing the rain forest board to move the project somewhere else in Iowa.

Grassley said he grew concerned that project backers might spend all the grant money without erecting the massive, enclosed rain forest. He hasn't seen much evidence of progress toward raising the $90 million in donations that's needed.

"You have to have that money coming in," said Grassley, who still supports the project. "I am giving people the opportunity to give or to go and get the money so we get it going."

Grassley's office said the rain forest has spent $2.9 million of the $50 million grant.

Other ideas

In recent weeks, some members of the Coralville City Council - which has not approved the land deal for the project - have said the city should look for other uses for the land. They have said they've seen few signs of progress.

"My feeling would be to just walk away," Councilwoman Jean Newlin Schnake said recently. "It's time to realize we've done enough. We've tried very hard. We had a dream. We had an awesome project outlined. . . . We've been through counseling. Now it's time to go see the divorce lawyers."

Rain forest representatives have not announced major private financing of any kind in recent months.

Oman has said that the Environmental Project board may consider borrowing money for the project. He said Wednesday that the project's opening is set for 2009, with construction starting next year.

Rainforest Timeline

    1995: Ted Townsend of Townsend Engineering, one of the most successful private manufacturing companies in the state, proposes turning Des Moines' Wakonda Club into an education center for teaching young people health and employment skills. The proposal would require a land exchange between the country club and Polk County. Both turn down the idea.

January 1997: Des Moines leaders, led by Townsend, propose an educational center on 25 acres on the southwest edge of downtown Des Moines that would include the world's largest simulated rainforest. A 10-acre, 20-story-tall dome would contain the forest, an elementary school and an aquarium. Included in the project would be a large-screen Omnimax theater, a science center, a 600-room hotel, an office building and other education facilities. The cost is estimated at $330 million. Dubbed the Iowa CHILD Campus (using an acronym for Center for Health in a Loving Democracy), the facility could attract 1.4 million visitors a year, a consultant says.

January 1999: After a lukewarm reception in Des Moines, Iowa Child organizers take their idea to Cedar Rapids for a $280 million rainforest/aquarium project.

December 2000: Coralville bids for the $280 million project, and Cedar Rapids backs away.

September 2001: Project cut to $225 million.

2003: U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia., secures $50 million grant for the project, which is trimmed to $180 million.

December 2004: Project leaders say they will break ground in 2005.

2005: Project leaders get in battle with Coralville over land transfer. Design work continues.

Wednesday: Grassley wins congressional approval of a ban on the project using any more of the grant money until the $50 million is matched with private cash or in-kind services. Bill gives the project two years to raise the match or the grant or lose it.