By RENE SANCHEZ
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
June 07, 2005
"I get questions every day," she said. "People don't know what to expect."
That's because she is trying to create a rainforest.
On the Iowa prairie.
It's no joke. In the next few years, this small town near Iowa City could become the incongruous home of the world's largest enclosed rainforest, spread over 4.5 acres and soaring nearly 20 stories high, with a curving translucent dome to shed snow and walls built to withstand tornadoes.
It would look like a giant caterpillar. And the bold vision behind it is being billed as Iowa's salvation.
Some of the state's most prominent civic and political leaders are backing the project, which has received $50 million in federal funding. Iowa, they say, can no longer count on cornfields to power its economy and keep young residents from leaving. It needs tour buses.
"We have to rethink our future," said Ted Stilwill, a former Iowa education secretary who is part of the team developing the rainforest. "This feels a little outrageous - but that's exactly what we have to do."
Stilwill added: "When young people look around this state, they don't see imagination."
"This idea," said Quellhorst, the director of operations for the rainforest, "has sizzle."
But questions still surround the project, which has been in the works for years but not yet broken ground. Debate about it is flaring up because the nonprofit foundation preparing to build the rainforest is now asking the state for $20 million.
Some skeptics contend that expense would be risky, even foolish, for Iowa. They say an out-of-place ecosystem is unlikely to beckon big crowds from the Midwest and beyond to Coralville, especially in winter.
"Iowa has gotten too caught up in the 'Field of Dreams' movie - that 'if you build it, they will come' mentality," said Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor who has questioned the project. "The attendance projections are totally unrealistic. Coralville ain't Las Vegas."
Much of the plan for the rainforest is in place. It would be built on mostly vacant, weedy industrial lots that Coralville owns, next to Interstate 80 and a hotel and conference center already under construction.
The rainforest would be part of a 30-acre interactive science center featuring nature trails, an aquarium and theater, and multimedia exhibits on the environment. It would house towering tropical trees and an array of exotic animal and plant species. It also would rely on clean and renewable sources of energy, such as sunlight, and use cutting-edge technologies to capture and conserve water. Admission would be about $15.
Advocates of the project, who include former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, say it would be an extraordinary resource for teaching students about science - and a godsend for Iowa's struggling economy.
They expect the rainforest to draw more than 1 million visitors a year. They also say it would pump $187 million a year into the state economy, in part by creating 300 permanent jobs and sparking a need for another 2,000 around eastern Iowa. They are hoping to open in 2008.
"I think it will definitely happen," said Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, "and it will have tremendous benefits for the state."
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