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Coralville Wary of Rain Forest
2 on City Council Fear Project is Trying to Get Out of Town

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

November 12, 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.]

CORALVILLE — Two City Council members here say the next attempt to negotiate land the city has promised for a proposed $180 million indoor rain forest is a setup by the project.

    It is designed to force an impasse and allow the project to move elsewhere, council members Tom Gill and John Lundell said in interviews.

    Gill said they suspect The Environmental Project, which any day is expected to provide the city with conditions to keep the project in Coralville, will raise demands for land and other assistance to levels the city can’t meet.

    ‘‘My view of this is they’re sending something back to us that we can’t accept so that we’re the bad guys and they have to leave,’’ Gill said.

    ‘‘This whole thing is a setup to make us look bad. We keep going back and forth trying to work it, and it just hasn’t been working.’’

    The Environmental Project and Coralville are negotiating the transfer of 22 acres of city land for an artificial rain forest just south of Interstate 80 near the Iowa River.

    The city sent a list of its terms to the project’s leadership in late August and has been waiting for the project’s counterproposal. On Thursday, board members told project Executive Director David Oman to once again attempt negotiations with Coralville.

    ‘‘We’ve provided them the terms and minor modifications would be entertained, but major changes would simply be unacceptable. We have too much at stake to lose,’’ Lundell said.

    ‘‘It feels like we’re being manipulated and it needs to stop,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m just glad that I think it will be coming to an end pretty soon. It certainly appears that way, at least in terms of Coralville involvement.’’

    The council wants an agreement that requires a rain forest or education facility for at least 21 years and for it always to be a museum-quality attraction. The city also wants a say in how the rain forest is built and $120 million spent on construction, while allowing the city to make budget changes until the rain forest opens in 2009.

    A final breaking point in the eroding relationship between project and city officials came Thursday night, after city leaders in Dubuque admitted they and project officials have discussed moving the project there.

    Additionally, council members said they were surprised to learn that rain forest leaders expect the city to help raise $20 million to $25 million locally for the project.

    Lundell said discussions between the project and Dubuque city leaders show that Oman has not been forthright with Coralville leaders.

    ‘‘On the one hand, he’s told us over and over and over again that everything is on track for the project in Coralville. And on the other hand, while he’s telling us that, he’s going behind our backs and meeting with other communities. That really angers me and I think it calls into question integrity of him.’’

    Oman did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday, but wrote in an e-mail the project’s board chairman, former Gov. Robert Ray, is preparing the board’s thoughts this weekend.

    ‘‘I want to respect the process under way and the board’s direction on next steps versus communicating through the news media,’’ Oman wrote.

    Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, a strong supporter of the idea but who does not vote on the council, acknowledged disclosure of talks with other cities may hurt chances with Coralville. ‘‘I think anything like this muddies the water a little bit, it makes it a little more difficult for our council to say, ‘Hey, this is a project that is going to happen.’ It’s frustrating,’’ Fausett said.

    Council member Jean Schnake said Coralville has made all its efforts in good faith and have followed through on promises it has made to the rain forest.

    Schnake said she’s willing to listen, but is reluctant to agree to any terms that give land to the project.

    City Council members Henry Herwig and John Weihe said they want the project to respond before determining the city’s next move. ‘‘The ball is in their court. If they want us to respond, they’ve got to give us something to respond to,’’ Weihe said.