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Rain Forest to Seek $20 Million from State

Coralville project to ask for Vision Iowa funding

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

April 20, 2005

Nicholas Johnson's blog on this story.

[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 — Officials for the $180 million Environmental Project will seek $20 million in Vision Iowa funds for the 4.5-acre indoor rain forest they’ve proposed, The Gazette has learned.

     The request, a joint submission by The Environmental Project and the city of Coralville, is expected to be filed by the next deadline, July 1, an application draft examined by the newspaper shows.

    ‘‘We’re taking our time and making sure we have as much information together as we possibly can,’’ said Nancy Quellhorst, operations director for the project, which would be built along Interstate 80 and east of First Avenue in a Coralville brownfield area called the Iowa River Landing District.

    Project officials have long said they expected to apply for state funding but had not revealed publicly how much.

    The rain forest is one of two anchors for redevelopment in the area. It is to be adjacent to a city-owned 286-bed hotel and conference center and upscale retail and entertainment district.

    Rain forest officials said they’ve waited to submit a funding request until city and project leaders are comfortable with the project. That way, Vision Iowa board members see ‘‘something in the right stage of development,’’ Quellhorst said.

    The draft application, dated April 5, lacked critical financial information. The project’s five-year financial projections and marketing plans were still being developed, while the operational and maintenance plan was under review by project officials. Work on the project’s marketing plan was being done during the week of March 27, the draft revealed.

    ‘‘Absolutely that will be a part of the application process, but it’s difficult for us to share with the public where we are in the process,’’ said Quellhorst, noting the sensitivity of fundraising efforts and the impact on the financial plans.

    The state funding will be important, Quellhorst said. ‘‘Our project is really what the Vision Fund is about,’’ she said.

    The project will seek Community Attraction and Tourism funds because the roughly $225 million allocated for the Vision Iowa fund already has been distributed, Vision Iowa Program Manager Nichole Warren said.

    The CAT fund is to receive only $12 million annually through 2010, meaning an award the size of what The Environmental Project would seek would be given out in a multiyear agreement, Warren said. The Environmental Project request would fall behind 22 requests seeking more than $15 million that the Vision Iowa board already is reviewing. It takes the board at least four months to make an award.

    The project has funding commitments for $90 million, including $50 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and $27 million from Coralville. Additional funding announcements could be made before the grant application is submitted, officials said.

    Environmental Project officials still hope to break ground this year on the 20-story rain forest, which would include a 1 million-gallon aquarium. The draft application shows predicted attendance at 1.1 million to 1.5 million and annual net revenue of $21.8 million. The annual economic impact on Johnson and Linn counties would exceed $150 million, the draft states.

    Project officials expect the rain forest to create 300 jobs with a $31,000 average salary, about $325,000 annually in sales taxes from a gift shop and food services and $1.134 million in state income taxes.

    The grant application also details an educational component, which includes virtual reality technology, partnerships with area schools and a long-range goal of adding a public school to the site.

    Josh Schamberger, executive director of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his directors, and other agencies asked to support the project, have sought more details before completing new letters supporting the project.

    ‘‘That said, our entire board and this organization is very committed to this project being completed,’’ Schamberger said.

    Other details of the project’s science education program are to be released today by Ted Stilwill, the project’s director of learning.