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Rain Forest: Mistrust Ran Deep

Leaders in Johnson Pushed for Rain Forest Exec's Ouster in April

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

December 7, 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 and area economic development leaders here wanted the $180 million Environmental Project rain forest’s executive director to resign quietly in April after they saw no tangible progress in fundraising and project planning, a document The Gazette obtained reveals.

    The request that David Oman resign as executive director came from leaders of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce and Iowa City Area D e v e l o p m e n t Group and was supported by Coralville City officials, a briefing written in April by those groups and interviews indicate.

    Though The Environmental Project quickly dismissed the request, local leaders said this week complaints prompting their request haven’t been resolved.

    ‘‘In my opinion, in my time down here in the past fourand-a-half years, this project has been run more like a political campaign,’’ said Josh Schamberger, executive director of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau. ‘‘It’s been muddied by politics and egos.’’

    Now, former Cedar Rapids Mayor Lee Clancey is leading an effort by Iowa Technology Corridor economic development groups to rally behind Coralville and keep the project — billed as a world-class tourism draw — in the Johnson County city.

    Clancey, president and CEO of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said she wants rain forest board members to play a stronger role in decision-making and for project leaders to stop blaming Coralville for slow, and contentious, negotiations to transfer 22 acres the city has offered the rain forest.

    Coralville city officials, Oman and some project board members are expected to meet Thursday to determine whether the project has a future in Coralville. City involvement in project decisionmaking is expected to be at the center of those talks, city officials said.

    The April request for Oman’s resignation was based on meetings Coralville and area economic leaders had with lawmakers, former project employees, project board members and other community members, the briefing document shows. These people worried about what they called a lack of leadership and progress, stalled fundraising, lack of board involvement, poor communication and lack of key business plans.

    The group appreciated Oman’s efforts and sought the quiet resignation to avoid damaging Oman’s image, the document states.

    Coralville’s local legislators told city and economic leaders they were ‘‘the laughingstock’’ of the Legislature and had serious communication problems with Oman. They also said they would not support any Vision Iowa grant application for the rain forest unless Oman was replaced.

    The concerns resurfaced last week when Clancey convened a meeting with representatives of the Iowa City area and Cedar Rapids chambers of commerce and tourism and economic development agencies. The purpose, interviews showed, was to discuss a strategy for keeping the project in Coralville.

    Clancey, who as mayor championed the rain forest for Cedar Rapids until project officials moved it in 2000 to Coralville, said in an interview the only choice for the rain forest should be the current site south of Interstate 80 near the Iowa River. She has requested time at the project’s Dec. 13 board of directors meeting to lobby for it.

    ‘‘Coralville has been depicted in a way that is very unflattering. This is a city that has done everything asked of it in a professional manner,’’ Clancey said ‘‘To in some way insinuate that Coralville is not a willing partner is simply unfair.’’

    Efforts to reach Robert Ray, The Environmental Project board chairman and former Iowa governor, by phone for comment were unsuccessful Tuesday.

    Board member Mick Starcevich, president of Kirkwood Community College, said he has been informed of project developments since joining the board earlier this year.

    Starcevich said he was not aware of the April resignation request but that, with so much time passing since then, the project’s location and design are more important. ‘‘In the context of the whole situation, I don’t think, at this point, it has much relevancy with the need to proceed,’’ he said.

    Oman said Tuesday the resignation request was ‘‘in the old news bin.’’ He said the project has progressed nicely in recent months, with the addition of a project management firm KUD, a new architect and continued talks with corporations for financial backing. ‘‘We’re doing what we need to do to bring the project together,’’ he said.

    Oman said board members are informed about project developments and called work in meetings in the past fourand-a-half months ‘‘some of the best board discussion the project has ever had.’’

    He also said rain forest officials aren’t trying to blame the city for the stalled negotiations. ‘‘We’re simply looking for clarity and we’ve got a right to ask for that,’’ he said.

    Project and city officials have been at odds over how much land the rain forest needs, what control the city can have over the rain forest before the facility opens in 2009 and whether the project should meet other provisions to keep the land from reverting back to the city.