Thursday, November 24, 2005

Rain forest wants show of support

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen:
By Adam Pracht

Leaders of a planned $180 million rain forest project want to know that city officials are behind them or they will look at other options.

A Friday letter from the chairman of the project's board of directors, former governor Bob Ray, to Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett said project leaders want assurances in writing that city staff and council members are behind The Environmental Project, among other terms.

In the letter, Ray says that "time is of the essence" and requests a response to the terms on or before Dec. 2.

"If you are unable to meet the above criteria and timeline, the board will have to proceed with exploring other alternatives," Ray said in the letter.

The project would anchor the Iowa River Landing development southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue and would involve building an enclosed 4.5 acre rain forest, a more than 1 million gallon aquarium and create teaching and arts performance space.

In addition to wanting written support from Fausett and all city councilors, Ray's letter said project leaders wanted at least 25 acres with a preference of 30 acres -- compared to the 22 acres the city is offering -- and a site farther south from the interstate.

City administrator Kelly Hayworth said that from the beginning, city leaders have said they would help raise about $40 million from a variety of local sources, and Ray's letter stipulates that project leaders want assurances that can happen.

Finally, Ray's letter states that the group also wants the land transferred under a set timetable and "free of any encumbrances."

"More than ever, our board and team believe there is a sense of urgency in determining, once and for all, whether the proposed Iowa River Landing site and the project's relationship with Coralville, will work in the near and long term," Ray said in the letter.

In August, city leaders sent a draft term sheet to project leaders, outlining the conditions under which the city would transfer the land to the project.

Those stipulations included holding project leaders to the basic specifications, setting timeline and fund-raising requirements and tying strings to a $50 million Department of Energy grant, preventing the project from using the money in a location other than Coralville. Since the city sent the terms sheet, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced legislation to freeze that grant until project leaders get matching funds.

Project executive director David Oman, vice president Nancy Quellhorst and Ray did not immediately return phone calls Wednesday afternoon. Fausett also was unavailable.

Hayworth said the letter should lead to a face-to-face meeting and that he wasn't sure whether the terms from the project would be reasonable until that meeting took place.

"I think that they want to get this completed as quickly, as bad, as we do," he said. "I think they're indicating a willingness to get it completed in discussions one way or the other."

Councilor Tom Gill said project leaders would not receive written support from him under the terms Ray's letter sets out, specifically the request for more land, wanting the land free of the city's proposed encumbrances -- which Gill called essential -- and wanting city leaders to ensure $40 million in fundraising.

"How can we raise $40 million when they haven't raised a cent?" Gill said.

He said the coming discussions would be critical.

"I think we're coming to a point where things would have to change drastically for them to come here, or it will just fall apart," he said.

Councilor Jean Schnake said written support from her would require a dramatic change on the project's part. She said it was frustrating that project demands involved less city oversight while simultaneously requiring more city help.

"It just doesn't quite ring with a sense of sincerity," she said.

Councilor John Lundell, meanwhile, who has been a potential swing vote on the land transfer issue, said he had problems with some of the project's terms, though none were "deal busters." Still, he said it was a good sign that project leaders still were willing to talk with the city and hoped Ray's letter would lead to a rapid and definitive answer -- one way or the other.

"I see it as sort of an offering on their part that hopefully will lead to a fruitful and hopefully final decision," he said.