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Rain Forest: Des Moines Site Back in Play

Capital Interested if Project's Talks with Coralville Fail Today

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

December 8, 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 — Des Moines is interested in a proposed $180 million rain forest if Coralville and the group proposing the indoor attraction cannot agree today to terms that keep the project here.

    Des Moines city officials have conducted several meetings this fall to explore whether The Environmental Project’s artificial rain forest could be built in Des Moines, documents obtained by The Gazette with an open records request show.

    Acting Des Moines City Manager Richard Clark said Wednesday that the city won’t move forward until the project’s future in Coralville is decided, a move expected as early as today.

    Coralville city leaders and The Environmental Project leaders are expected to meet in Iowa City this morning to see if they can agree on the transfer of 22 acres that Coralville has offered the rain forest. Both sides remain far apart.

    ‘‘I think those discussions need to be concluded one way or the other before we’re going to seriously entertain even an exploratory kind of process on this,’’ Clark said.

    Clark said Des Moines could move quickly with a market feasibility study if talks with Coralville fall apart. The study would estimate attendance and operation costs and give other information necessary when determining whether Des Moines would move forward, he said.

    Clark said the rain forest is more attractive now than when Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, who proposed the idea as a way to put a first-class tourist and education attraction in Iowa, first pitched it to Des Moines in late 1998. It has been refined and its initial $270 million price tag has dropped by $90 million, Clark said.

    ‘‘I think there’s also the potential here to add some other elements so that the project that might happen here would really be different than what’s been talked about before,’’ he said.

    A specific site in Des Moines has not been identified, Clark said, but he said building and strengthening other downtown attractions with another major attraction would make sense. Des Moines leaders may consider putting the rain forest on the city’s periphery, where more land is available and the potential exists to partner with other facilities, like the Blank Park Zoo, he acknowledged.

    The Environmental Project Executive Director David Oman said Des Moines approached the project and no negotiations have taken place. He said Des Moines is one of several Iowa communities to express interest in the project this fall after hearing of what he called the ‘‘noise in Coralville.’’

    ‘‘Interest in the project is markedly different than when the project started here,’’ Oman said from his Des Moines office.

    He said, however, the project’s current focus is to resolve issues in Coralville.

    Dubuque city leaders also have met with Oman and project staff about locating in the northern section of the Port of Dubuque, which includes Grand Harbor Resort, Diamond Jo Casino and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.