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Coralville rain forest project running in red

By Zack Kucharski
The Gazette
Saturday, August 07, 2004, 11:02:24 AM

© 2004 The Gazette

[Reproduced here as a "fair use" for educational purposes only.]

CORALVILLE -- Driving east and looking south from Interstate 80, it's difficult to imagine a massive indoor rain forest replacing an old industrial park at the First Avenue exit.

Looking at the federal financial disclosure forms filed by the group that wants to build the rain forest, it's it's still difficult to imagine.

The project -- once called the Iowa Child Project and now known as the Iowa Environmental Project -- ended 2003 some $46,632 in the red, according to the project's federal form 990 obtained by The Gazette this week.

The group spent $611,741 during the year, mostly on fund-raising and marketing.

It started the year with a $565,000 donation from Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, who has bankrolled the project from its inception in 1999 and provided most of the $3.2 million spent on the project to date.

Reserves were used to cover the imbalance, leaving the project with $10,937 in net assets at the close of 2003.

The 990 report does not reflect the $50 million grant the project obtained in early 2004 from the U.S. Department of Energy, which the project now has access to, project administrator David Oman of Des Moines told The Gazette.

A groundbreaking for the $180 million project -- still in the planning stages -- should happen this winter, Oman said.

The group has $90 million in donations, including the federal grant. Other donors are Townsend, $10 million pledge; a $15 million in-kind gift from Coralville for land and infrastructure; and $15 million from an unnamed out-of-state utility company.

The project's major expenses included $182,254 to Environmental Enterprises of Manhattan Beach, Calif., for planning of the renewable energy and fund-raising efforts.

Another $69,500 went to the John W. Conrad III Co. in Washington, D.C., for help securing the federal grant.

Conrad lobbied members of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, including Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on behalf of the rain forest project. Conrad formerly worked for Grassley, Oman said.

Grassley's help was widely cited as responsible for getting federal funding for the project. He tried first to secure "green bonds" for the project, which were removed during final negotations of an energy bill with the U.S. House. He then secured the $50 million grant as part of the wrap-up federal spending bill.

Other expenses, according to the 990 form, included $256,558 in fund-raising; Oman's salary of $175,424; $45,658 for marketing; $50,800 in architect fees; $38,131 in travel; and $23,726 in legal fees.

"We expended what we needed . . . to secure and anchor the financing of the project -- and we did that," Oman said. "We're running the project very frugally, with that principal in mind. Our effort is not aimed at hoarding a lot of money and husbanding a lot of money until we're set to plan and construct the project."

The group's financial picture is contained on a Form 990, a public document all non-profit organizations are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service.

Fund-raising efforts continue, Oman said.

"The federal grant from the Department of Energy made the project real," Oman said. "The lines are very much so still in the water.

"I feel terrific about the effort. We're making significant progress," Oman said, who was on both coasts last week. "There are a number of fronts being worked hard and well -- several new ones, some that have taken months to mature."

There are also discussions with state officials about seeking state funding if necessary for "last dollars," Oman said, although no applications have been made.

City officials in Coralville remain optimistic the efforts will yield results. Planning of entry roads to the facility continues. The city is building a $63.5 million hotel and conference center next to the rain forest site.

Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said the acquisition of the land needed for the Environmental Project is continuing. The city already owns roughly 70 percent of the land needed for the project. The majority of the remaining land is owned by two owners, he said.

Businesses located on the future site will be moving out over the next four to six months, Hayworth said.

"We're trying to be flexible to the needs of each business," Hayworth said.

Project vice president Nancy Quellhorst said she understands the frequent questions from the public about the status of the project, but said the project is pushing forward with a lot of behind-the-scenes work while fund-raising efforts continue.

"We walk a fine line in what and how much we can say," Quellhorst said. "That can be hard because people want to know the details. There's so much happening, but we have to be respectful of the groups we work with, too."

A group of about 30 community members is working on issues of incorporating art into the planning of the project, as well as tourism and attracting industries which could use similar labor forces, Quellhorst said.

A new project Web site will be launched sometime this month, which is the same time frame for additional staffing announcements.

Developing a new name will also soon be in the works, she said. That process will likely be developed from within, she said.

"We're using The Environmental Project as a placeholder," Quellhorst said. "It's something we're going to have to live with for a long time."