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Rain Forest Deal Falters

Negotiations: Coralville’s demands rejected
Rain forest: Broadens search to other cities
Coralville: Still in play, doubts its prospects

Zack Kucharski

The Gazette

December 9, 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 indoor rain forest officials failed to reach a land deal Thursday because the proposed mega-attraction rejected Coralville’s demand for a long-term lease and a commission to oversee rain forest management.

    Lacking a deal, leaders of the $180 million indoor rain forest said they would look elsewhere for what has been billed as a world-class tourist spot for Iowa.

    Leaders of The Environmental Project, the group proposing the rain forest, said they’ll open discussions with other interested cities about relocating. Eight or nine have expressed interest, he said, including Tiffin, Riverside, Des Moines and Dubuque.

    A decision could come in several weeks, rather than months, The Environmental Project Executive Director David Oman said.

    Coralville still is in the mix, but city officials said they would not compete with other communities. They said they would put the rain forest on the ‘‘back burner’’ while brainstorming other ideas for 22 acres they’ve offered the rain forest near Interstate 80.

    The Tiffin site would be where a commercial development called The Villages, along I-80, has been proposed by a private developer. The Riverside site would be near the Washington County Casino Resort that is being built.

    ‘‘We did not get to closure today,’’ Oman said.

    ‘‘We’ve had a number of communities, institutions, projects and developers across the state and we’re going to learn more about them as well. Coralville is certainly welcome to remain in potential mix of potential sites the board will study.’’

    Coralville City Council members interviewed after rain forest and city officials met in an hourlong teleconference said they don’t expect the project to be built in their city.

    ‘‘At this stage, they’re after operating money,’’ said council member John Lundell. ‘‘They’re looking for communities that can provide immediate cash to continue the operation of the project. We feel like we’ve done that already in terms of the infrastructure,

but they don’t count that.’’

    Coralville leaders wanted a third-party board, to add local control to rain forest decisions. It would be similar to one guiding a $53.8 million Marriott Hotel and Conference Center the city is building near the rain forest site.

    City officials also proposed giving land under a long-term lease for $1 annually. Such a lease, common for museums and attractions in Iowa, would have allowed the city to regain ownership if the project failed and prevented the rain forest from selling the land and moving elsewhere, city officials said.

    Council member Tom Gill, part of Thursday’s conference call with Lundell; Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth; and state Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville, said the city could have come ‘‘pretty close’’ on every negotiating point. That included increasing the amount of land for the project and agreeing to help raise up to $40 million in private funds, Gill said.

    But ‘‘they didn’t want to negotiate at all,’’ Gill said. ‘‘They wanted us to say, ‘go’. It’s our belief as a council we’ve made every effort to have them here.’’

    Oman said his board was uncomfortable with a third-party commission, which board members discussed last month. He said a long-term lease may have been possible but that board members expressed interest in receiving land without restrictions.

    Oman said he expected board members to decide how to pursue other communities at a meeting Tuesday.

    Oman, Environmental Project board Chairman Robert Ray, a former Iowa governor; project founder and Des Moines business Ted Townsend; board member Betsy Roe of Pella; board member Dick Myers of Iowa City; and project legal counsel Robert Downer of Iowa City also were in the teleconference.

    Coralville City Council members who did not participate in the meeting said the city has lived up to its end of the bargain in a relationship that dates to late 2000. They said they are looking forward at other options for the 22 acres at their disposal.

    ‘‘I’m surprised the people from The Environmental Project don’t see how that might be the best opportunity for them,’’ said council member John Weihe.

    Council member Jean Schnake said the city needs an idea that enhances the hotel and other commercial development.

    Josh Schamberger, executive director of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, urged interested communities to demand specific details about financial plans and operational strategies from rain forest leaders.

    ‘‘I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures over the past several years — mostly tax dollars — but no real plan that justifies those. I have not seen anything more substantive than a really good PowerPoint presentation,’’ he said.

    Documents show the rain forest has spent about $2.9 million of a $50 million federal grant, which has been frozen until the project finds matching funds.
What Coralville offered: 22 acres near Interstate 80 for $1 annually
What Coralville wanted: A long-term lease A third-party board for local control
What project wanted: More land for the project Help in raising $40 million in private funds