Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site


Rainforest in Dubuque?

If the Environmental Project Falls Through in Coralville, Local Officials Might Consider Putting It Near the Riverfront

Rob Kundert

Dubuque Telegraph-Herald

December 1, 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.]

Coralville, Iowa, officials hope to meet soon to finalize details with developers of a controversial multi-million-dollar rainforest project that Dubuque officials wouldn't mind a shot at.

If details can't be ironed out to lock in The Environmental Project for the community north of Iowa City, officials here have shown interest in bringing the $180 million project to the Port of Dubuque.

It could become the next phase of the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

"It does muddy the waters a little bit, but there is no way that we would change our plans, because we will not get into a bidding war with Dubuque," said Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett.

City Manager Mike Van Milligen has deferred comment on the issue following a threat of a potential lawsuit filed by Coralville officials for interfering with their agreements with project developers.

Documents obtained from Dubuque City Hall show there have been meetings and correspondence since September between Van Milligen, Jerry Enzler, executive director of the National Mississippi River Museum &Aquarium in Dubuque, and the project's developers in Des Moines.

A map of the Port of Dubuque made available to the project's planners outlined available land west of Bell Street to the railroad tracks that could be used for the project.

With its emphasis on the environment coupled with a strong educational component, it would fit with that of the river museum, but not as a separate project, Dubuque officials said.

"There needs to be a willingness to arrive at an agreement that deals with governance, project scope and administration, and continued management and operation," Van Milligen stated in a letter to the developers. "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."

Meanwhile, leaders in Coralville have been working to make The Environmental Project the main attraction in their own hotel/conference center development along I-80 near the Iowa River.

"We have close to $100 million invested," Fausett said.

However, The Environmental Project Board of Directors, chaired by former Iowa governor Robert Ray, stated in a letter three weeks ago that a decision on land acquisition for the project in Coralville had to be finalized by Friday.

But with the organization's executive director David Oman out of the country until that day, a negotiating session has not been set, according to Fausett.

"They had indicated some resolution by Dec. 2, but that is misleading because we can't sit down with them to negotiate on where the footprint is and on the ongoing operation plan," Fausett said.

There are still other problems to be worked out. For instance, nobody knows exactly what the facility is going to look like, Fausett said.

"The Environmental Project hired a new architect. We haven't received a plan of how much land would be needed," he said.

Twenty-two acres had been earmarked for the facility in the Coralville development, but up to 40 acres could be made available, Fausett said.

It had been understood that the project would take approximately 41/2 acres for the rainforest and would include a 1-million gallon aquarium, education facility and entertainment theaters, Fausett said.

"We have never really seen a layout of how this was going to work," he said.

Since Des Moines architect Ted Townsend came up with the idea in the mid-1990s of a large-scale environmental education facility incorporating a rainforest, it has skipped like a flat stone across pond water, from Des Moines, to Cedar Rapids before arriving at Coralville in 2000.

Initially, the project was going to be located on land near I-80 and I-380, before project and Coralville officials agreed to combine it with the city's hotel/conference project near the Iowa River, along I-80, according to Kelly Hayworth, Coralville city administrator.

"In 2000, we told them we would lease them the property at minimal cost, but recently they asked we give them the property free and clear, but we don't know if state law would allow us to do that," said Fausett.

But Coralville council members have insisted that if the project fails and project developers don't maintain it as an aquarium, rainforest or some other attraction, that the land revert to the city, Fausett said.

"It's extremely valuable property, some of the most valuable in the state of Iowa," said Coralville council member John Weihe.

On top of land issue, some members of the Coralville council have expressed concern that because the project planners have not been able to raise money other than $50 million from the federal government, the city should look elsewhere for an anchor attraction for its development, he said.

Now there is interest in bringing the project to Dubuque.

"It's not a fight between two cities. We will continue what we have been working on for four years. We love the Dubuque project. We love what they have done," Fausett said.