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Rain Forest Given Ultimatum
Coralville Council to Pull Crucial Support if it Doesn't See Binding Agreement Soon

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

August 25, 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 — A majority of City Council members say they will pursue other options for the site intended for a proposed indoor rain forest if they don’t get a binding agreement on the project’s construction and timetable in four weeks.

    Losing city financial support — estimated at $40 million — likely would kill the $180 million project’s future in Coralville.

    The rain forest would be left with a $50 million Department of Energy grant and support from Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, who pledged $10 million toward its construction.

    ‘‘Without the city of Coralville, there is no project . . . there’s not even a discussion,’’ said Josh Schamberger, executive director of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    The deadline comes amid frustrations by some council members over the lack of detail and increasing doubts the rain forest will raise $90 million it needs for construction on a 22-acre city site near Interstate 80 and the Iowa River.

    ‘‘I will know which side of the fence I am on in the next four weeks,’’ said Coralville council member John Lundell, who along with council member John Weihe would represent swing votes against the project. ‘‘My patience is running out on this.’’

    Lundell would look at other options if no agreement is reached, he said.

    City officials have told The Environmental Project, which is developing the rain forest, they want an agreement that requires the facility to be a rain forest or education facility for at least 21 years and always to be a museum-quality attraction. The city also wants a say in how the rain forest is built and wants The Environmental Project to spend $120 million on construction, while allowing the city to make budget changes until the rain forest opens in 2009.

    Council members Jean Schnake and Tom Gill have said previously they want to cut ties and pursue other uses for the land, which the city has said it would give the project. Gill wants to talk with developers who have suggested a water park or arena that would return the property to the tax rolls.

    David Oman, the rain forest’s executive director, said he remains confident the project will be built and that he is eager to negotiate an agreement with the city.

    ‘‘It’s not a concern at all,’’ Oman said Wednesday. ‘‘We’re as interested as they are about resolving some of these matters.’’

    In addition to the deadline, the city sent a letter Tuesday to The Environmental Project’s board requesting the rain forest hire architect Peter Sollogub, who has done the majority of the project’s design work. Project officials terminated a contract in June after Sollogub left the firm the project had been working with.

    The city says Sollogub and local architects he could partner with have the experience and commitment to the community necessary to responsibly design the project.

    Oman declined to comment about the selection process but hoped to have an architect in place next week.