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Despite Past Problems, Suitors Optimistic About Iowa Rain Forest

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

May 8, 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 hoping to lure a long-promised $180 million rain forest say they’re optimistic about the project’s future in their towns despite its problems at three previous sites.

    Developers in Grinnell, Pella, Riverside and Tiffin all say they’re excited to have the chance to woo the iconic rain forest.

    And each was quick to tell me in interviews that the issues that moved the project from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Coralville aren’t likely to repeat themselves in their communities.

    Their excitement reminded me of how city officials felt three years ago, when I first began covering the project midway through its stay in Coralville. I’d watch as an array of Coralville city leaders would be on hand for announcements about the project at City Hall, and champion the project both publicly and on fundraising trips.

    That excitement slowly fizzled, though, until the lack of detail about what would be inside the rain forest and how it would work derailed talks for a site next to Interstate 80.

    The breakdown made me, and many others I’ve talked to, curious about why developers want to compete as The Environmental Project, which proposed the rain forest, looks for its fourth host city in nearly eight years. The project, for example, needs to raise at least half of the money needed for construction.

    The optimism that the project will be built and meet longtime promises is grounded in new specific and detailed plans for the mega-attraction, developers said.

    ‘‘There’s a very intricate and very detailed business plan,’’ said Jim Angstman, vice president of Regency Homes and High Development Corp. in Eastern Iowa. He’s hoping to include the rain forest on a 200-acre development just north of I-80 at Tiffin.

    Developers said they can’t share rain forest details — at least not yet. Each has signed non-disclosure agreements prohibiting them from sharing the plans. They also are cautious about sharing too much of what they offer so they don’t give away ideas to the other groups.

    The rain forest is projected to draw more than 1 million visitors annually when it opens, now scheduled for 2009. Expectations that the rain forest will generate millions of dollars in local spending continue to drive those vying for the project — just as it did in Cedar Rapids and Coralville.

    ‘‘Having that project included in the other recreational opportunities takes what would be a threeor four-hour visit to one where people may stay three or four days,’’ Eric Woolson said. He is a spokesman for Des Moines developers wanting the project in their 260-acre commercial and residential development at Lake Red Rock near Pella.

    The answer is similar from Glenn Patton, whose group is trying to lure the rain forest to Riverside near the Washington County Casino Resort. Patton said the rain forest with the casino, golf course and events center creates an even larger tourist destination.

    David Oman, The Environmental Project’s executive director, told me the last time we talked that the new details have helped quickly advance discussions with developers. ‘‘They’ve looked at this project, studied it, looked at some of our data and have come away excited,’’ he said.

    ‘‘It’s not all about the economic upside from creating something big and unique,’’ he said. ‘‘In every instance, those people who have taken the time to understand the project and learn about its education and conservation missions become even more excited about those aspects.’’

    Oman expects the project’s new site to be chosen late this month or in early June.

    Oman, who during most interviews relates the project’s history to struggles other unique landmarks have faced, said design work in the past few months helped move the project forward.

    Even as the project’s site remains unknown, Oman is excited. ‘‘We’re not throttling back now,’’ he said.