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Final Potential Rain Forest Sites Expected Today

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

March 29, 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.]

    IOWA CITY — Developers trying to land a proposed $180 million indoor rain forest in Iowa said they’ve heard little or no indication which of the seven groups vying for the project will be selected today as finalists.

    Board members of The Environmental Project, the group proposing the artificial rain forest, are expected to select an unknown number of finalists for the controversial tourist attraction packed w i t h h u g e promises during a meeting a t Little Amana.

    Unsure of how their proposals stack up, or which will get the board’s support, officials from communities in central and Eastern Iowa said all they can do is wait and remain optimistic.

    ‘‘I do feel very good that Pella is going to go forward in the next round,’’ said Eric Woolson, spokesman for developers wanting the rain forest in a 260-acre commercial and residential development near Lake Red Rock, near Pella. ‘‘But I’ve gotten a sense that a winner will not be chosen tomorrow but that they’ll winnow the field.’’

    Developers in Tiffin said they hope to keep the project in the Technology Corridor, where it has been proposed for seven years, starting in Cedar Rapids and then moving in December 2000 to Coralville.

    ‘‘We’re hopeful. They’ve told us they like our site,’’ said Jim Angstman, vice president of Regency Homes and High Development Corp. in Eastern Iowa. His company applied to host the project on 202 acres just west of the Interstate 80-380 interchange.

    Today’s The Environmental Project board vote follows more than two months of evaluation and site visits conducted by three board members, who reviewed proposals from Coralville, Des Moines, Dubuque, Grinnell, Pella, Riverside and Tiffin.

    Former Maytag CEO Leonard Hadley of Cedar Rapids, Betsy Roe of Central College in Pella and former State Auditor Richard Johnson of Sheldahl began their visits after project officials could not agree with Coralville on terms for a city-owned 22-acre site south of Interstate 80.

    Rain forest officials remained tight-lipped about how the selections would be made. David Oman, The Environmental Project’s executive director, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

    Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, the project’s board chairman, said he did not know what the recommendation of his three board members would be, but said he expects the board to winnow the list down. He did not know how many finalists would be chosen.

    Ray said the three members reviewing the proposals have ‘‘tremendous credibility.’’

    Coralville city officials, who spent five years working with the project before talks broke down in December, said they doubt the project has any future in Coralville.

    ‘‘We all feel very confident we’re not at the top of their list and, frankly, that’s OK with me,’’ City Councilman John Lundell said.

    Ed Raber, the Washington Economic Development Group executive director helping coordinate an application for Riverside, a town of 1,000 about 10 miles south of Iowa City, said, ‘‘My impression is they feel there are some other places that are better than others, but they wouldn’t tell us who they were.’’

    Bill Menner, spokesman for the Grinnell group seeking the rain forest, said, ‘‘We know there are some places in the state that can come up with the local match more easily than we can.’’ Menner is Poweshiek Iowa Development’s executive director.