Tuesday, September 20, 2005

You Been Called

The lead paragraphs from August 25th:
Mark the calendar. For those following a planned $180 million enclosed rain forest, Sept. 20 will be a date to make or break the project.

During a work session late Tuesday night, city councilors set a four-week deadline for leaders of The Environmental Project to respond to a draft land transfer agreement.

The agreement would make the transfer of more than 20 acres of city-owned land southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue contingent on a number of requirements. These include holding project leaders to the basic specifications of a 4.5-acre enclosed rain forest, a 1 million gallon aquarium and an outdoor performance venue, among others.

It also would set timeline and fund-raising requirements, with all funds and contracts in place six months after the land is transferred. In addition, it would tie strings to a $50 million Department of Energy grant, preventing the project from using the money in a location other than Coralville.

For project leaders, meeting the Sept. 20 deadline to return with comments and concerns on the agreement or an alternate proposal will be critical. On Wednesday, councilor John Lundell said if the deadline was not met, he would join councilors Tom Gill and Jean Schnake in calling for a different use for the land -- making a majority of the City Council willing to break with the project.

So, here we are. September 20th. And the "project leader's" response?
David Oman, Environ-mental Project executive director, declined to identify when his group would respond to the draft.

"We will finish it when we finish it," he said. "There are issues that need additional attention."

Mr. Lundell, you've been called. Time for you, Mr. Gill, and Ms. Schnake to throw down. The other councilmembers are nothing but wafflers:
City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said the deadline was not set in stone. "The council's point was that they wanted it as soon as possible," Hayworth said, adding that he expects something in writing from project heads this week. . . .

Mayor Jim Fausett said he believes the draft has served to focus talks between the city and the Environmental Project.

"I think we're making progress," he said. "I feel good. I feel that both sides are making a real conscious effort."

Excuse me, Mr. Fausett, but what part of "we'll get to it when we get to it" sounds like a conscious effort to do anything but tell the city to take a flying leap into hell and stop bothering him? Keep in mind, Oman didn't say this to you in a private conversation couched in reassurances that he's doing his best. He said it to the press, on the record, in quotes: "We will finish it when we finish it." No diplomacy, no effort to sound conciliatory - conscious or not. "We will finish it when we finish it." That's about as blatant a kiss-off as it gets.

The call's been made, it's public and it's pointed. Time for the Coralville city council to show where their loyalties lie, if for no other reason than to remove their own necks from this rapidly-tightening political noose. Do you really want to be the politicians who spent $180 million on a fake rainforest in Iowa when the city of New Orleans lies in ruins, our gasoline is topping $2 per gallon, and the war in Iraq is costing us lots of our spare cash? No matter which side of the political fence you ride, your constituents are going to hate you if you keep this one up. I'm not kidding.

One of the most important lessons to learn is when to get the h*ll off the waterskis. That would have been 2004, but we'll forgive you if you walk away now and act like you had doubts about the project the whole time.

Of course, you could always take the theatrical approach: everybody walk into the next council meeting wearing towels, and pretend you just walked out of the shower to discover all of last year was a dream. I wouldn't recommend it, though.

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