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Rain forest queued for $50 million


The U.S. Senate is expected to vote Tuesday on an $820 billion omnibus appropriations bill that would deliver $50 million in funding for an indoor rain forest near Coralville that backers expect to draw up to 1.5 million people to Iowa each year and have an annual economic impact of around $130 million.

Congressman Jim Leach, R-Iowa, has called Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend’s $180 million project combining education and environmental stewardship “the most imaginative idea in the history of our state.” Given the working title of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project, it includes a 4.5-acre indoor reconstructed, ecologically authentic rain forest; 10 acres of prairie and wetland; and four learning academies. It will create 500 jobs during construction and an additional 400 permanent positions once the facility is operational.

“It stretches the mind,” said David Oman, the Iowa Environmental/Education Project’s chief administrator. “We need to do that in Iowa. We need to think more boldly, more assertively.”

The federal funding for the rain forest originally was included in an energy bill that was defeated in the Senate in November. Because the omnibus appropriations bill is the product of a conference committee, specific line items can’t be stricken, and the Senate must vote either up or down on the legislation.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, used his power as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to put the $50 million earmark for the rain forest project in the omnibus bill, which would fund a host of agencies currently operating at fiscal year 2003 funding levels. The continuing resolution keeping the agencies operational expires Jan. 31, and while that looming deadline improves the bill’s chances, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other Senate Democrats are threatening a filibuster to block a vote to end debate on it. Primarily, they oppose earmark funding for a voucher program in Washington, D.C., public schools as discriminatory toward students and teachers.

In a conference call with Iowa reporters last week, Grassley acknowledged mustering the votes needed to break the blockade could be difficult given Daschle’s proven ability to marshal Senate Democrats.

“Daschle has shown a great deal of ability to keep most of these Democrats in line,” Grassley said. “I just hope he doesn’t try to do that.

“I can’t vote against a big appropriations bill,” he said. “There’s more than one thing in it I don’t like, but we’ve got to get this government funded.”

The omnibus bill has been criticized as loaded with pork-barrel projects in states with ranking members on powerful committees. The Iowa Environmental/Education Project is one of thousands of projects and programs that would share in the $23 billion in discretionary spending included in the bill. The bill also includes $1 million for the World Food Prize Foundation restoration of the central library, an earmark requested by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Both requests were mentioned on the top-10 pork list of the national budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common.

Former Gov. Robert Ray, chairman of the board overseeing the Coralville project, said “pork” is an unfortunate word to describe an investment by the federal government to provide “a solid launching pad” for the $180 million project.

“It’s a very good example of a public-private partnership,” he said. “Government can stimulate it and the private sector can make it happen.   Sometimes, people in the private sector might have an interest in supporting a major project, but they want to make sure there’s an underpinning.”

The $50 million federal appropriation would put the project about halfway to its $180 million fund-raising goal. Townsend has committed $10 million, the city of Coralville has committed $20 million in land and infrastructure, and another $10 million pledge looks promising, Oman said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of lines in the water with individuals, institutions and corporations around the country. Most of the work will be done outside of Iowa, and the added benefit is that we’re bringing capital into the state.

“There’s no better example than the federal program. That is a perfect example of public and private dollars combining to create a 21st-century project that will be good for Iowa.”

Ray said the project has the potential to raise Iowa’s profile, calling it “a signature project, like Seattle’s Space Needle or the Arch in St. Louis.”

“Jim Leach said it very well: It’s the most imaginative idea in the history of Iowa,” Ray said. “What I would like to have Iowans do is think bigger, beyond what they are accustomed to doing.”

More than 50,000 vehicles travel Interstate 80 each day and the rain forest project will be “another large magnet around the interstate that some have said could be a voluntary toll booth to leverage the traffic that too often drives right through our state,” Oman said. Located nearby are the University of Iowa, its athletic and cultural venues and hospitals; the Coralville Mall, which draws 1 million visitors a month; and the Iowa River.

Backers of the project compare its potential impact and scope to those of the Eden Project, an eco-center in the Cornwall district of England that is the world’s largest conservatory. Its mission is to raise awareness of the environment and advocate for its protection. Open since March 2001, the $137 million project is having an annual economic impact of about $200 million, “and we have some features and elements that are not a part of Eden,” Oman said.

He also said the Iowa Environmental/Education Project addresses most of the goals of Iowa’s strategic plan for 2010, developed by bipartisan commission he co-chaired four years ago to build a roadmap for the state’s future. “If you take our project, dissect it and truly learn what is possible, based again on what’s created at Eden and what is in our plan, and then look at the Iowa 2010 plan, this project directly touches five of the eight goals and indirectly one or two others,” he said. “It’s really special in that regard. Not many projects have that sort of breadth.”  

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