Saturday, October 29, 2005

It's Not Just A Rainforest, It's An Educational Masterpiece That Will Bring Unimaginable Amounts Of Dollars To Our Community

Adam Weeks of North Liberty, writing to the Press-Citizen:
It troubles me to witness such narrow mindedness by the very reporters we turn to for news each day. For years now, the Iowa Environmental Project, though it has had other names, has been simply called a rain forest in Iowa.

Well, in my opinion, if one wishes to garner any sort of support, this oxymoron should be put to rest. However, it is my belief that opponents of this magnificent project use this negative hype much to their advantage. This project is a visionary icon located in what is supposed to be an educational center. It's not just a rain forest, but an aquarium, amphitheater, prairie restoration project and, most important, an educational masterpiece that will bring unimaginable amounts of dollars and many jobs to our community.

A couple years ago, ABC's "Good Morning America" produced a story in which its reporter stood affront a cornfield supposable in Iowa and did his best to belittle the project. Not only was the location inaccurate, with no mention of the brown field cleanup, but it was biased and irresponsible. I can only speculate that if this project were slated for New York City that it would be considered the greatest environmental spectacle of all time.

Some members of the Coralville City Council have suggested that other projects with similar draw could be located in the landing. I for one don't see this as having a chance unless Midwest Disney is coming to our beloved metro. Finally, Sen. Charles Grassley should not feel embarrassed about supporting projects in his state ("Sen. Grassley 'embarrassed' but committed," Oct. 28). If Iowa doesn't utilize this earmarked money, another project in another state will.

Now THAT'S a funny letter!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

"It just amazes me that this thing can go on and on and on and nothing seems to happen and no one seems to respond"

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen:
More than a month has passed since city officials and leaders of a planned $180 million enclosed rain forest began discussing how to hand over 22 acres of city-owned land to the project, but it's still unclear when a final agreement could arrive.

The Environmental Project is planned to anchor the Iowa River Landing southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue and would include a 4.5-acre rain forest, a one million gallon aquarium and teaching space.

City administrator Kelly Hayworth said project officials responded by the Sept. 20 deadline but negotiations to finalize the contract still are ongoing. He said the most significant sticking points seem to be timeline requirements and consequences for project officials if items are not completed.

Proponents of the project say it will bring 500 construction and 200 permanent jobs, attract 1.1 million to 1.5 million visitors annually and add $187 million to the state every year. But critics have said project leadership has been lacking and question where the final $90 million in funding for the project would come from.

In August, city leaders presented project officials with a draft contract outlining the conditions for giving the land to the project. Among the stipulations were requirements to maintain the facility as a "museum quality" tourist attraction for 21 years, fully funding the project within six months after the contract was signed and requiring that a $50 million federal Department of Energy grant for the project could only be used to build the project in Coralville.

David Oman, executive director of the project, did not immediately return a phone call Monday, but has said he was committed to getting the contract finished.

Hayworth said once a final version was written, city councilors would have an opportunity to vote on it.

The possibility that the land transfer contract would make it past a vote appears slim. Councilors Tom Gill and Jean Schnake say they no longer support the project, and councilor John Lundell says he only would support the project if there were a complete change in the project's decision-making leadership. That majority could block any action to transfer land to the project.

"I'm disappointed that nothing concrete has happened in the last two years plus and remain anxious to see what's coming," Lundell said.

Gill has said he would like to know whether the Department of Energy grant is tied to Coralville and whether using that money for an alternate project is feasible.

The original "scope of project" document filed with the Department of Energy says the project would be built in Coralville. But Brian Quirke, a public information officer for the department, said that nothing in the grant required the project be built in Coralville. He said project officials have drawn about $2 million on the grant for expenses so far. If the project should ever fail, Quirke said the money would revert to the U.S. Treasury, unless Congress directs otherwise.

Hayworth, however, disputed that the money was not tied to Coralville, saying that the original appropriation documents identified the project for Coralville.

In any case, Schnake said she thought a quality project could go on the land even without the grant money.

"It can be done, just not perhaps on the grandiose magnitude promised by the promoters of the rain forest show," she said.

Finalizing the land transfer contract isn't the only aspect that project officials are working on.

Quirke said project officials had told him that a required environmental assessment would be coming to his office soon. He said the assessment would identify any potential environmental harm and come up with ways to mitigate any damage.

Schnake said she would like to know what's going to happen with the project as soon as possible and to have some resolution. She said the project was similar to a dull headache that periodically erupts.

"It just amazes me that this thing can go on and on and on and nothing seems to happen and no one seems to respond," she said.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Details, Details

From DM Cityview, Civic Skinny column, October 20, 2005 edition:
And lastly, even though there have been rumblings about possibly relocating the all-but-dried-up rain forest idea from Coralville to Des Moines, if anyone involved would bother to look at the federal pork legislation regarding the project, they would notice it calls for the behemoth to be built only in Johnson County.
Why would that stop fauxscal conservative Chuck Grassley, Rainforest chief con-man David Oman, or filthy former Governor Bob Ray from trying to move the project if Coralville falls through?

Rainforest To Move To Des Moines?

From Governor Yepsen's column today:
Vilsack needs to be consistent to win the presidency. So, he should:

• Give back some of Iowa's pork. Offer to give back to the federal government the $50 million Iowa got to build a rainforest in Coralville. No one else seems to be putting any money into the $150 million-plus project. It's become a source of naysaying and ridicule around the country. There's now talk of trying to bring it back to Des Moines or having the state help pay for part of it. So return the money.

This is news.

Where did Yepsen hear that the project may move to Des Moines?

Update: Nicholas Johnson has the article from Des Moines CityView where this is mentioned:
The rainforest people now are talking to folks in Des Moines about putting it in Des Moines once again -- even though Des Moines sort of booted it out of town a few years ago. "There's a new cast of characters in town now, and they don't know the history of it, so Bob Ray and Dave Oman and others are quietly making some pitches around town," one business leader told us. "I suspect that they'll fail, but it's kind of frightening to think that anyone is even listening. Once again, they are saying they are 'on the verge' of getting some big money -- but they've spent the past several years 'on the verge.' What they're really on is a precipice, not a verge."
Former Governor Ray is one of the filthiest frauds ever, what with backing this con-game and Clark McLeod's scam.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Colin Gordon On Grassley's Fiscal Recklessness

University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon has an excellent op-ed in the Des Moines Register today that skewers fauxscal conservative Chuck Grassley:
The kind of numbers thrown around in the federal budget — $50 million here, $20 billion there — can be a little surreal for those of us who are not economists or members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

But occasionally the numbers, and the priorities behind them come into sharp focus. One such moment came last week, when the Bush administration pledged $50 million in aid to earthquake-stricken Pakistan. This is exactly the same amount of money earmarked in 2004 for construction of an indoor rain forest in Coralville, Iowa.

Now, by any measure, $50 million is a drop in the federal budget (about .002 percent of 2005 spending). But I think most would agree that it is a lot to spend on bringing tree frogs to Iowa — and not a lot to spend on a natural disaster whose death toll has topped 50,000. That compares with a hurricane Katrina death toll to date of 1,300.

Unfortunately, this is typical of our budgetary priorities. In 2004, the United States spent only 0.16 percent of gross national income on foreign aid, an index of charity that placed us 21st on a list of 22 "rich" nations — marginally ahead of Italy and well behind countries such as Norway, Luxembourg, and Portugal.

Our dismal record on foreign aid is well documented but not widely appreciated. In a 2001 poll, respondents pegged foreign-aid spending at 24 percent of the federal budget — or about 24 times its actual level (about 1 percent). Just as troubling is the fact that boondoggles like the Iowa rain forest find it so much easier to jump the queue.

Proponents of the Iowa rain forest have floated a range of educational, environmental and economic benefits. But clearly the project's greatest virtue is its location in a state represented by a member of Congress willing and able to lard general spending bills with local pork. In this case, that's Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

The same budget round, after all, lavished $150 million on a riverfront development in Shreveport centered on a Hooters restaurant, $2 million on a golf-awareness program in St. Augustine, Fla., and — without a hint of irony — $500,000 on a University of Akron project ("Exercises in Hard Choices") that examines congressional budget decisions.

Such spending attracted renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, thanks to the juxtaposition of Katrina relief and a transportation bill towing a load of 6,373 local earmarks, worth almost $25 billion. A few bold members of Congress volunteered to redirect local pork to the Gulf Coast. But most, including Grassley and the rest of the Iowa delegation, fiercely defended local projects even as the Gulf Coast, Pakistan and the federal budget lay in ruins.

So it's once again a pittance for aid abroad and a carnival of waste at home. What makes that all the more troubling is the devastation on the revenue side of the ledger. As President Bush's tax cuts make landfall in the treasury, federal tax receipts as a share of the economy have fallen to their lowest level in 50 years.

The deficit for 2005 is projected at $331 billion, pre-Katrina. Most of this damage has been done by the tax cuts, a fiscal disaster in the making now costing us about $250 billion a year. But some of it has been done by local trifles like the rain forest.

With $50 million here and $50 million there, to paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, pretty soon you're talking serious money.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Officials Question Rain Forest (Daily Iowan)

From reporter Angie Meng at the Daily Iowan:
The deadline for the Iowa Environmental/Education Project to provide Coralville with answers about the proposed $180 million rain forest passed nearly a month ago - and some city councilors are beginning to seriously question the project.

Several weeks before the Sept. 20 deadline, some councilors said if they didn't see significant improvements, they would withdraw their support for the 4.5-acre artificial rain forest, which is to be located near the Interstate 80-First Avenue interchange. However, project officials have yet to give a response.

David Oman, the executive director of the Project, said Coralville and project officials have had a number of conversations since the deadline passed, and they are trying to plan a formal meeting.

"From the project's point of view, time matters," he said. "We are very committed to getting a resolution."

Coralville and the Environmental Project are negotiating over both of the two groups' needs and expectations for the land, Oman said.

"There has been some misunderstanding that it was put in front of us as a 'take or leave,' " he said. "And that's not the case. Both sides have their interests, needs, expectations, and we have to work through all of those in negotiation."

However, Councilor Tom Gill, who has long opposed the project, said since Coralville sent the Environmental Project a contract in August, the city has been in a "black hole."

"We don't know what's going on," he said. "Basically, the whole Environmental Project is depending on using our land, and we're not going to release it."

Gill said the councilors are beginning to worry about where the $50 million federal grant is, how much has already been spent on the project, and if the grant was written for a project in Coralville or for an environmental project anywhere in Iowa.

"This is tax-dollar money," he said. "It should be public information, but no one seems to know anything about it, and the people who do know about it won't tell us anything."

Oman said Monday the $50 million grant was executed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Project is the grantee.

"I don't feel the project should proceed," said Councilor Jean Schnake, who is also concerned about how the grant money is being spent. "The concept is good, but the execution stinks.

"I've reached a point where I don't think the project is going to happen. Everyone set those deadlines, but no one is stepping forward, and there's not a lot that one or two individuals can do."

However, Councilors Henry Herwig and John Weihe said they are willing to give project officials some leeway.

"In my opinion, that deadline wasn't intended to not have any flexibility," Herwig said. "Personally, I don't mind waiting a few weeks. Something of this magnitude needs more time."