Thursday, December 08, 2005

Coralville: Rain forest looking for a new place to grow

From the Des Moines Register:
Backers of a massive rain forest-and-aquarium project in Iowa on Thursday told Coralville officials they will open negotiations with other Iowa towns.

Coralville officials almost immediately countered that they have no intention of getting into a bidding war for the project and will look for other uses for the proposed site along Interstate Highway 80 in case negotiations stall completely.

"City representatives said they believe they could reach agreement with all the points in the governor's letter through negotiations," the city said in a statement.

"City representatives also said they believe strongly in the project and believe the land along Interstate 80 is the best location in the state for the project, but they will not compete with other communities,” the statement said. “The city's negotiating team also indicated they will immediately explore all other development alternatives for the highly visible and easily accessed property."

Earlier, State Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville, who was in on a telephone meeting between the rain forest team and Coralville Thursday morning, said Coralville-area leaders still hope to land the $180 million project.

He said backers of the project told Coralville leaders that their town is still in the running, but they want to pursue overtures from other cities.

A rain forest official in Coralville declined comment. Rainforest chief David Oman was not immediately available.

Thursday's announcement opens the possibility that the project could move back to where it started — Des Moines — or to a new contender, such as Dubuque.

Coralville remains in the running, but the rain forest team led by Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend and former Gov. Robert Ray, has been unable to come to an agreement over the use of approximately 22 acres next to Interstate Highway 80 in Coralville.

That disagreement centers on whether the city would donate the land or lease it to the project.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Questions remain about proposed rain forest

By Jackie Kaeding, an op-ed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen:
Imaginative, exciting, different. These are all lofty adjectives I've heard describing the Environmental Project's proposed rain forest, one of the state's latest ideas for development. In my opinion, project leaders and supporters have their heads stuck in the clouds.

The idea, originally thrown on the table back in 1996, somehow found it's way onto the agenda of Coralville's City Council nearly six years later, and could end up in Dubuque's hands. It's time we sit back, take a look at the big picture, and (excuse the cliché) begin putting two and two together.

Iowa is not known for its attractiveness to tourists. Sure, we've got the coveted triple threat, the Amana Colonies, Adventureland and Wacky Waters. But let's face it -- how many tourists from around the nation contribute to Iowa's revenue? Granted, Interstate 80 runs straight through the state making it accessible, but it will be incredibly difficult to advertise an attraction in a state with horrific winters, containing miles upon miles of farmland and often mistaken for "that one place that grows lots of potatoes." We might as well be throwing an amusement park in the middle of the Sahara.

In addition to the location, the budget of the entire project is absolutely absurd. The estimated construction cost adds up to a total of $180 million. Take into account the incredibly steep energy and upkeep costs for such a habitat.

So far, after years of planning, there is only half of that amount on hand. A mere $90 million is all that the government and project leaders have to show. And exactly how much of that $90 million came from fundraising? Look it up, and you'll find one big, fat goose egg. There is no public support for this indoor rain forest. This could be an explanation for speculation about the rain forest moving to Dubuque. I am convinced that there are ulterior motives behind a possible switch in locations. The goal of the project has gone from "inspiring generations to learn from the natural world," to simply wanting to increase gambling revenue for the nearby casino.

It is clear that Iowa is attempting to grow and expand, with programs such as the Environmental Project and the Grass Roots Campaign. I believe, however, intentions are beginning to become unclear. It is questionable as to why our state's government is willing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a campaign that is supposed to promote the education of the rain forest and its depleting ecosystem, when all of this money could easily be going to the efforts in rebuilding the earth's natural ones.

What is the point of spending such an enormous amount of money on taking endangered plants and animals out of their natural habitats, when it could be going toward things such as promotion of keeping them and rebuilding where they are now? It is inhumane to move such plants and animals living in such a fragile environment. Iowa doesn't need another zoo, and it doesn't need another coming attraction.

In the long run, taxpayers and government officials should be asking themselves: Where do I want my money to go? Into a large bio-dome filled with high trees and low morals? Or to a fundraising effort that could actually work to improve something much more important -- today's living, breathing and natural environment?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rainforest In Dubuque?

Via a reader and from the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald (requires subscription):
Rainforest in Dubuque?

If the environmental project falls through in Coralville, local officials might consider putting it near the riverfront


Coralville, Iowa, officials hope to meet soon to finalize details with developers of a controversial multi-million-dollar rainforest project that Dubuque officials wouldn't mind a shot at.

If details can't be ironed out to lock in The Environmental Project for the community north of Iowa City, officials here have shown interest in bringing the $180 million project to the Port of Dubuque.

It could become the next phase of the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

"It does muddy the waters a little bit, but there is no way that we would change our plans, because we will not get into a bidding war with Dubuque," said Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett.

City Manager Mike Van Milligen has deferred comment on the issue following a threat of a potential lawsuit filed by Coralville officials for interfering with their agreements with project developers.

Documents obtained from Dubuque City Hall show there have been meetings and correspondence since September between Van Milligen, Jerry Enzler, executive director of the National Mississippi River Museum &Aquarium in Dubuque, and the project's developers in Des Moines.

A map of the Port of Dubuque made available to the project's planners outlined available land west of Bell Street to the railroad tracks that could be used for the project.

With its emphasis on the environment coupled with a strong educational component, it would fit with that of the river museum, but not as a separate project, Dubuque officials said.

"There needs to be a willingness to arrive at an agreement that deals with governance, project scope and administration, and continued management and operation," Van Milligen stated in a letter to the developers. "Together, we can bring these projects to a successful conclusion in a timely fashion, creating an Iowa-based, internationally acclaimed environmental education facility with a total investment in excess of $300 million."

Meanwhile, leaders in Coralville have been working to make The Environmental Project the main attraction in their own hotel/conference center development along I-80 near the Iowa River.

"We have close to $100 million invested," Fausett said.

However, The Environmental Project Board of Directors, chaired by former Iowa governor Robert Ray, stated in a letter three weeks ago that a decision on land acquisition for the project in Coralville had to be finalized by Friday.

But with the organization's executive director David Oman out of the country until that day, a negotiating session has not been set, according to Fausett.

"They had indicated some resolution by Dec. 2, but that is misleading because we can't sit down with them to negotiate on where the footprint is and on the ongoing operation plan," Fausett said.

There are still other problems to be worked out. For instance, nobody knows exactly what the facility is going to look like, Fausett said.

"The Environmental Project hired a new architect. We haven't received a plan of how much land would be needed," he said.

Twenty-two acres had been earmarked for the facility in the Coralville development, but up to 40 acres could be made available, Fausett said.

It had been understood that the project would take approximately 41/2 acres for the rainforest and would include a 1-million gallon aquarium, education facility and entertainment theaters, Fausett said.

"We have never really seen a layout of how this was going to work," he said.

Since Des Moines architect Ted Townsend came up with the idea in the mid-1990s of a large-scale environmental education facility incorporating a rainforest, it has skipped like a flat stone across pond water, from Des Moines, to Cedar Rapids before arriving at Coralville in 2000.

Initially, the project was going to be located on land near I-80 and I-380, before project and Coralville officials agreed to combine it with the city's hotel/conference project near the Iowa River, along I-80, according to Kelly Hayworth, Coralville city administrator.

"In 2000, we told them we would lease them the property at minimal cost, but recently they asked we give them the property free and clear, but we don't know if state law would allow us to do that," said Fausett.

But Coralville council members have insisted that if the project fails and project developers don't maintain it as an aquarium, rainforest or some other attraction, that the land revert to the city, Fausett said.

"It's extremely valuable property, some of the most valuable in the state of Iowa," said Coralville council member John Weihe.

On top of land issue, some members of the Coralville council have expressed concern that because the project planners have not been able to raise money other than $50 million from the federal government, the city should look elsewhere for an anchor attraction for its development, he said.

Now there is interest in bringing the project to Dubuque.

"It's not a fight between two cities. We will continue what we have been working on for four years. We love the Dubuque project. We love what they have done," Fausett said.

Iowa City Press-Citizen: Time To Move On

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen:
Don't let the proverbial door hit you on the way out.

That ought to be the message from the city of Coralville to organizers of the proposed $180 million rain forest project.

While this editorial board has tried to open-mindedly seek information about the rain forest project, the latest from the organizers of the project is too much ("Rain forest wants show of support," Nov. 24).

In his Nov. 18 letter to Mayor Jim Fausett, the chair of The Environmental Project and former governor Robert Ray listed a set of "criteria" that include a minimum of 25 acres of prime land from Coralville, written support of the project from all City Council members and $40 million in donations from area residents, foundations and companies.

Ray also admonishes the mayor for Coralville city councilors having the nerve to voice criticism and concerns about the project.

"It was made known to you in September that other communities, institutions, and developers had begun to contact board and staff members with proposals to host the Project," Ray wrote. "Those overtures followed comments by some of your City Council members. I have to assume that you, too, were disappointed by those remarks."

How audacious! Public officials speaking out about concerns over a project that already has a pledge of $50 million of public money and wants the city to donate land worth millions more and likely will go to the state for millions more than that.

Of course, this isn't the first time rain forest project leaders have admonished the city of Coralville. In an e-mail to city officials last year, rain forest project founder Ted Townsend complained that his project should not take second place to the $60 million Marriott hotel and conference center.

"We will not take short shrift to another everyday, uninspiring hotel," Townsend said in the e-mail. "You are so focused on completing that standard project, you are selling short the goose that will lay enormous golden eggs."

There is more than a little irony in Townsend talking about goose eggs, when the rain forest project has thus far laid the big goose egg on fundraising. Coralville officials, and the community as a whole, have grown increasingly wary as month after month has turned into years with no word of new funding.

Where's the rest of the money? That's been the key question for far too long.

Really, it seems to us that the only party in this whole rain forest quagmire -- yes, it has reached quagmire status -- that has looked after the public's interest is the city of Coralville.

Coralville's city administration and councilors deserve credit for giving this project a serious look. Any project that includes $50 million in federal funding and promises hundreds of jobs and more than a million visitors a year deserves a serious look. The 4.5-acre rain forest also would include a more than 1 million gallon aquarium and teaching and arts performance space.

Now Coralville officials have agreed to meet again with project organizers. We hope it's only to tell the rain forest to get out of town. Without knowing where more of the money is coming from, we do not believe it would be wise for the city to go forward. The project has lost momentum. Even Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a key supporter, recently introduced language into a federal appropriation bill that would prevent the project from receiving any more of the $50 million in federal money until the project raises non-federal matching funds.

Environmental Project leaders have in the past few months raised the troubling possibility of debt financing. We don't think that is wise. They also want state money. That's just to build the project. What about operations?

Beyond that, there is a long list of questions that deserve detailed explanation. Those questions aren't even worth asking if there's no more funding. Coralville has prime land. That land is ready to be developed. The city of Coralville would be making a huge mistake by transferring the land for the rain forest.

There's been too much talk and too few results on this project. Let's move on.