Friday, November 25, 2005

Rain forest board members to Coralville: Pony up resources

From the Des Moines Register, a ridiculously one-sided and day-late story by Jennifer Jacobs:
The message from rain forest promoters to Coralville city officials: show us the money and show us the land, or we might explore locating the $180 million project elsewhere.

Days after a U.S. senator turned up the pressure on the slow-progressing rain forest, former Gov. Robert Ray, the chairman of the board of The Environmental Project, wrote a three-page letter giving Coralville officials until Dec. 2 to make commitments on land, money and support.

"I think there are other places that have stepped forward with considerable interest and, before, our people would not talk about that because we were trying to work with Coralville," Ray said in a telephone interview today. "Now if this doesn't work, there's a feeling by the board we should at least listen to what other communities have to say."

Ray's letter, dated Nov. 18, turns the tables on Coralville officials, who have for months expressed doubt that the rain forest's leadership team can ever successfully complete the project.

Sen. Charles Grassley has also grown impatient with the slow pace. On Nov. 9, Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, said he wanted to give the organization until December 2007 to match its entire $50 million federal grant with private donations — or lose the grant altogether. The grant has faced widespread criticism as an example of frivolous spending.

The rain forest board is now asking the city of Coralville to live up to its offer of raising $40 million in private money, Ray said.

"We do not have the option of waiting one year to learn whether local sources totaling $40 million will materialize," Ray wrote in a letter addressed to Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett. "The Environmental Project Board requests some confirmation regarding commitments or intent to provide such funds in order to understand the reality of that offer."

To date, the biggest financial backer has been the U.S. government. Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, negotiated in 2003 for a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Project founder Ted Townsend, a Des Moines businessman, has committed $10 million, and an out-of-state energy company has offered an $11 million in-kind partnership.

Land is another issue. Ray's letter states that the rain forest project requires a minimum of 25 acres "in order to ensure meaningful exterior and interior experiences, and viability for the future."

The city has offered public land next to the Iowa River and Interstate 80, but the Coralville City Council has yet to officially approve the land deal. Some council members have suggested looking for other uses for the land because they’ve seen few signs of progress with the rain forest.

"Support from the community and from city officials is vitally important to building a strong case for a Vision Iowa grant," Ray wrote in the letter.

The Environmental Project board needs to know it has the mayor's personal support and "the expressed written support from all Coralville City Council members," he wrote.