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Rain Forest: Courting 2 Cities At Once

Rain Forest Was Pursuing Dubuque Site 2 Months Before Its Coralville Ultimatum

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

November 26, 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 — The Environmental Project leaders have worked actively with Dubuque city officials since at least September on a possible partnership there for the artificial rain forest planned for Coralville, documents show.

    That was two months before leaders of the proposed $180 million indoor rain forest gave Coralville until next Friday to meet certain requirements before project leaders look elsewhere.

    Talks between The Environmental Project and Coralville have been stalled over the transfer of 22 acres the city has offered near Interstate 80 for the rain forest.

    E-mail and letters show rain forest officials have studied about 33.4 acres of vacant land in the northern area of the Port of Dubuque as an alternative site. That is near the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, Diamond Jo Casino and Grand Harbor Resort, along the Mississippi River.

    The documents, obtained by The Gazette with an openrecords request, show rain forest Executive Director David Oman and Dubuque city officials swapping two e-mails each.

    They also show that Oman and former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, the project’s chairman, met with Dubuque officials in Des Moines on Sept. 16 and that Oman, Ray and Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend met with city officials Sept. 29 in Dubuque.

    Townsend came up with the rain forest idea as a major attraction for Iowa and has given the project $10 million, plus $250,000 in no-interest loans.

    Dubuque City Manager Michael Van Milligen told the rain forest’s design consultant in an Oct. 7 e-mail the facility should be blended with the next phase of the city’s National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

    He did not want the museum and rain forest competing for federal, state and private funding, he wrote.

    ‘‘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 wrote. ‘‘We have that willingness.’’

    The same day Oman told Van Milligen in an e-mail he would stay in contact with Jerry Enzler, the National Mississippi River Museum executive director.

    Oman suggested a non-disclosure agreement so both sides ‘‘can better disclose and learn as much as they care to about the other.’’ Such agreements allow groups to share confidential materials but forbid disclosure to an outside party.

    Oman also suggested that participants be clear about funding issues.

    ‘‘This is topline but I wanted to share our read as we move to second base,’’ he wrote to Van Milligen.

    Communication with Dubuque city officials stopped Nov. 8, three days before the project’s board told Oman to once more attempt negotiations with Coralville.

    Project officials have long said the Coralville site is ideal because the land next to I-80 provides high visibility to the 50,000 passing vehicles each day and provides room for future expansion.

    Oman is traveling and did not return Gazette requests Wednesday or Friday for comment about Dubuque.

    Coralville and The Environmental Project are trying to negotiate the transfer of land near the Iowa River.

    The city sent its terms to the project’s leadership in late August and had, until last week, been waiting for the project’s counterproposal.

    Ray responded Nov. 18, saying project leaders want at least 25 acres and that the proposed rain forest site needs to be pushed farther south from I-80.

    Project leaders also want the land without restrictions, support from all Coralville City Council members and city help raising up to $40 million.

    Project and Coralville city officials are to meet at an undetermined time.

    Coralville City Council members are not happy.

    Council member John Weihe said he believes the project — which needs to raise $90 million for construction — is interested in Dubuque because of gambling revenue there.

    ‘‘If they were fishing for a better deal than what we we’re offering, that’s probably why they weren’t in any hurry to talk to us,’’ he said.

    Council member John Lundell said the project, and Oman in particular, should have told the city the rain forest was exploring other options.

    ‘‘It’s disappointing to me that while we were having those discussions, he was so actively involved discussing the project with another community,’’ Lundell said.

    Council member Tom Gill accused project officials of talking out of both sides of their mouth by acknowledging one situation publicly, while pursuing other options privately.

    ‘‘I’ve always had this belief that they were and the reason is because of the history of Cedar Rapids and Coralville,’’ Gill said, referring to the project’s 2001 decision to end talks with Cedar Rapids and relocate in Coralville.

    ‘‘They were using Coralville as leverage to get some things out of Cedar Rapids.’’