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Rain Forest Cash Offers Scarce
Interested Cities Want More Information

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

January 31, 2006

[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.]

    Des Moines city leaders have asked the group proposing a $155 million indoor rain forest in Iowa for more time to file an application to host the project.

    They remain interested in The Environmental Project but need more time to answer where it would be built and how much public or private support for it exists, Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley said.

    ‘‘We just want to keep ourselves in the game but not be eliminated based on a technicality of not responding,’’ Hensley said, referring to today’s deadline for cities interested in hosting the rain forest to submit an application.

    Des Moines is said to be one of about eight communities — a list that includes Tiffin, Riverside, Grinnell and Coralville — interested in the rain forest. The Environmental Project is looking for a new site after it and the Coralville City Council officials failed to reach an agreement on a 22-acre site.

    While Coralville remains interested in the project for land immediately south of Interstate 80 near the Iowa River, the city isn’t changing terms presented to The Environmental Project in December, City Council member John Lundell said.

    None of the communities is guaranteeing specific amounts of money they’d provide as a match for a Vision Iowa grant application, nor the $25 million rain forest backers asked bidding communities to provide.

    ‘‘No matter what their wish list might say on it, they’re going to have to be, in my mind, the impetus for fundraising,’’ said Jim Angstman, vice president of Regency Homes and High Development Corp. in Eastern Iowa. His company is applying to host the project in Tiffin, just west of the Interstates 80 and 380 interchange.

    Angstman said his company’s application includes detailed information about its 202-acre site and a letter of support from the Tiffin City Council.

    The rain forest’s $155 million price tag includes design, construction and start-up costs, but does not include the land that would have made it a $180 million project in Coralville.

    In Grinnell, a 20-page application identifies locations and potential financial partners, but makes no guarantees, said Bill Menner, who is coordinating the town of 9,100 residents’ application.

    ‘‘In our response, there’s nothing written in stone,’’ said Menner, executive director of Poweshiek Iowa Development. ‘‘We’re not prepared to go ask anyone for a commitment until we’re a lot further down the road.’’

    A lack of project information kept officials in Riverside, a town of 1,000 about 10 miles south of Iowa City, from promising local financial support, said Ed Raber, the Washington Economic Development Group executive director helping coordinate Riverside’s application. Raber said the application is connected to a 40-acre site across Highway 22 from the Riverside Casino and Golf Course that is under construction.

    ‘‘This isn’t the sort of thing where you have a good feel for it,’’ Raber said.

    The Environmental Project Executive Director David Oman did not return a call for comment about applications Monday. He has said project leaders hope to have a three-member committee visit interested sites in early February, with selection of a new site by late March.