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Dubuque Talks Rile Coralville
Rain Forest Keeps Tenuous Focus on Coralville Negotiations

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

November 11, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    AMANA — The Environmental Project’s directors told its executive director Thursday to make one more attempt to negotiate with Coralville — and not other cities — to secure a site for the proposed controversial $180 million indoor rain forest.

    The group’s decision came hours before city leaders in Dubuque admitted they and rain forest officials have talked about moving the project to there, a move that irked Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth.

    ‘‘When there are ongoing negotiations, ongoing work and expenses and collaboration here, we don’t believe it was appropriate,’’ Hayworth said last night about the discussions with Dubuque.

    It was another indicator of the strained relationship between Coralville, which has offered 22 acres for the rain forest south of Interstate 80 and east of First Avenue, and The Environmental Project.

    Project board members tried to mend that relationship during a private meeting in Amana and end two months of unsuccessful negotiations with Coralville about transferring the land.

    ‘‘The direction from the board is to see one more time if we can work out some of these issues with Coralville,’’ Environmental Project Executive Director David Oman said following the meeting.

    Board members want clarity on who provides $20 million to $25 million in local financial support the project needs for a state grant application, Oman said.

    ‘‘The community and the project would, together, put the monies on the table. That’s what lured the project from Cedar Rapids to Coralville several years ago.’’

    Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said the last discussion city officials had with rain forest staffers about fundraising was months ago. He said the city could be a willing participant if firm project plans were in place.

    Oman’s statement about the city’s role in fundraising surprised Hayworth, who said The Environmental Project has not approached the city for detailed discussions about raising money for the project.

    ‘‘We’ve said all along if the project is done properly and we have input and know exactly what the project is, yes, we would be active in the process,’’ he said.

    Hayworth, upset that Oman was talking to the media but not city officials about Thursday’s meeting, said negotiations on the rain forest have been sporadic. He said he was unsure when or if they would resume and that the next move belongs to Oman.

    The city will not enter a bidding war over the project, Hayworth said, nor would it provide $20 million to $25 million in city money.

    City Council member Tom Gill said Coralville is being made to ‘‘look like the bad guy’’ on negotiations and suspects the project will be moved. He wants the city to stop negotiating for the project.

    ‘‘I don’t think we as the city should tie our wagon to an albatross,’’ Gill said.

    Council member Henry Herwig said all the city’s terms are negotiable and that he wants talks between the groups resolved soon.

    ‘‘We threw some things at them and they’re reacting and I hope we’ll have some good discussion,’’ said Herwig, who wanted to hear the plan for local fundraising.

    Local funding from foundations, companies or individuals, Oman said, is critical to a $20 million Vision Iowa grant he wants the project to file jointly with the city. The timing of the application has not been determined, Oman said.

    The grant and local funding would provide up to $45 million of the $90 million the project needs to complete the project. Oman said he expected to secure about $20 million in corporate funding and that board members are considering borrowing about $15 million, using the project’s site as collateral, to finance the remainder of the project.

    Raising $50 million in nonfederal funding also would allow the project to regain access to the remainder of a $50 million federal appropriation frozen in a legislative move by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley, who helped secure the grant, has set a December 2007 deadline on the non-federal match or the group loses the appropriation.

    The funding freeze is awaiting Senate approval, which was delayed from an expected vote Thursday to early next week. The House gave approval Wednesday.

    Speculation the project may move to another city has grown as the project’s relationship with the majority of City Council members withered. The federal appropriation only requires the project be built somewhere in Iowa.

    Dubuque City Manager Michael Van Milligen confirmed that city staffers and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium representatives have had discussions with rain forest staff.

    The city, Van Milligen said, was trying to confirm whether a formal agreement between Coralville and the project exists. He said the city would not become involved if it does.

    Contact the writer: (319) 339-3157 or z a c k .kucharski@gazettecommunications. com

David Oman Rain forest executive director

Kelly Hayworth Coralville city administrator

Bobby Ratliff/KCRG-TV9 Some site preparation has been done in the left half of this aerial photo of Coralville where The Environmental Project proposes building a $180 million indoor rain forest. In the upper right corner, construction is progressing on the Marriott Hotel and Conference Center that Coralville is building. This area is called the Iowa River Landing District. You are looking east in this photo. Interstate 80, on the left, is north of the rain forest site. The Iowa River, at the top of the photo, is east of the site.

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