Getting off the ground; Rain forest board faces big decisions as fund raising proceeds

By Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

December 2, 2004

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    CORALVILLE — Decision time approaches on the five-acre, $180 million indoor rain forest proposed for Coralville.

    The board for The Environmental Project, as it is now called, will meet Dec. 21 to decide how to proceed while keeping the project on budget.

    David Oman, the project’s executive director, is continuing efforts to raise the final $90 million needed to complete construction and development.

    He will present the project’s 23-member board with options on how to proceed.

    ‘‘The board may determine that time is as important, if not more important, and decide that this is what we have and this is what we can do with it, and let’s move ahead,’’ said Oman. ‘‘It’s their decision to make. I’m not going to forecast today what they’re going to do later in December.’’

    It is possible, he said, for construction to begin this spring, as scheduled, while fund raising continues.

    Project officials continue meeting with potential donors this month, Oman said, adding that the financial picture could change before the Dec. 21 board meeting.

    It’s critical, he added, that the project price tag remain at $180 million and that construction have accurate cost estimates.

    The project, he said, remains on schedule to begin construction in 2005 and open in 2008.

    The goal, he said, remains the same: create a world-class facility geared toward learning.

    All the scenarios Oman will present to the board keep the project at the proposed site just south of Interstate 80 and east of First Avenue in Coralville.

    Coralville has completed acquisition of land needed for the project and an adjacent city-owned hotel/convention center, and buildings on the land will be razed in coming months. Several companies in the city’s Old Industrial Park, now being called the Iowa River Landing, have until spring to relocate.

    Excavation of an ancient campsite dating to about 1500 B.C. is expected to end next week. Stone tools and a spear point have been found.

    Meanwhile, planning for rain forest programs has begun.

    Liz Maas, environmental coordinator for the project, is reviewing rain forest plant and animal species to determine what plants can live together and thrive in the indoor rain forest. She also is looking for ones that will provide the best visitor experience.

    Part of that work includes determining whether the plants and animals on the list would even be legal to import and where they could be obtained, she said.

    Ted Stilwill, the project’s director of learning after retiring this fall as director of the Iowa Department of Education, said he hoped to have educational programming agreements arranged early next year with the state and with area school districts, community colleges and the University of Iowa.

    Such agreements would boost efforts to secure grants from national organizations, the government and corporations, he said.

    ‘‘If we’ve agreed generally on a game plan, then we can walk in and ask for some money to do it,’’ Stilwill said, adding that grants would be critical to education programs until visitor revenues support programming.

    ‘‘We’re not going to be generating revenues for a few years,’’ he said.

    The project won a $50 million federal grant last year.

    Stilwill said most school districts within a two-hour drive of Coralville are interested in visiting the project. He is visiting with educators about programs focusing on the environmental and energy sciences.

    Adult conference series and other opportunities are also being prepared.

    ‘‘We want to work with education and political folks to really say kids need to be learning more science,’’ Stilwill said. ‘‘Everything from graduation requirements to the kind of science being taught today needs to be better than it is.’’

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[Photo caption: Brian Ray/The Gazette Sarah Pitzen of Coralville, a field technician with the Office of the State Archaeologist, shovels dirt as she works with other field technicians to excavate near the site of the proposed indoor rain forest and the new Coralville convention center in Coralville on Wednesday. Excavation of a campsite that dates to 1500 B.C. is expected to end next week. A spear point and stone tools have been found there. The board of The Environmental Project, which is planning the rain forest, will meet later this month to decide how to proceed with the project. Efforts continue to raise $90 million needed for the $180 million project. ]