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Why Rain Forest is on Thin Ice
Lack of Progress Fuels Coralville's Demands

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

August 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 — City Council members say their impatience with a proposed $180 million rain forest is growing because it lacks firm plans, financial backing or public disclosure of decisions being made about the highprofile project.

    The slowly withering relationship comes as city leaders demand specific details about the rain forest, pitched as a world-class major destination tourist spot for Iowa, and control over how it is built.

    The information and control is important as the council considers giving The Environmental Project, which is planning the rain forest, 22 acres of this city’s most visible real estate just south of Interstate 80 and west of the Iowa River.

    ‘‘We’re all concerned because we would like to see a business plan, exactly what is going to be on the inside of this shell that has been proposed,’’ Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said Thursday. ‘‘We just feel it’s time we get some answers and know exactly what their intentions are and how they plan to go about it.’’

    Binding details are critical as work on the city’s adjacent $53.8 million Marriott Hotel and Conference Center pushes forward and city leaders make final plans for redeveloping more than 150 nearby acres.

    ‘‘There’s been a lot of optimism and promise but not a lot of reality,’’ said City Council member John Lundell, who said he would look for other options for the site if the rain forest does not agree to binding terms in the next month.

    Lundell would be a crucial third vote on the five-member City Council to dump a deal in which the city gives up to $40 million to support the rain forest. Council members Tom Gill and Jean Schnake previously said they want to scrap the deal.

    ‘‘This thing just isn’t going to happen,’’ Gill said. ‘‘There isn’t support for it.’’

    City Council members want an agreement that requires The Environmental Project to have 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.

    Environmental Project Executive Director David Oman says it’s a matter of ‘‘when, not if’’ a facility is built, and said he looks forward to negotiating with the city, starting next week. ‘‘World-class projects take time to complete,’’ Oman said.

    But Fausett and other city leaders have serious concerns about who the project’s architect will be. He wants Peter Sollogub, who worked on the rain forest until he left his former firm this year.

    The Environmental Project terminated a design contract with that firm in June after Sollogub left it. Fausett said rain forest staffers have told him the organization was leaning toward London-based architect Nicholas Grimshaw.

    ‘‘When it comes to getting local buy-in of this project — and we have enough people who are not for it a s i t i s — I don’t want to lose the people that have been involved and supportive of this by changing architects in the middle of the stream,’’ Fausett said.

    Pressure for formal — and public — agreements is long overdue, said Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, a City Council member when the project announced plans for the current site in 2001. ‘‘I would have hoped we’d be pouring footings by now,’’ he said. ‘‘Progress hasn’t been made.’’