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I remember there used to be a strip club in Coralville, but it closed down. How could the only strip club near a big university go out of business? —Anonymous
There are lots of ways for a strip club to go out of business, but Dolls Inc in Coralville is probably the only one driven to extinction by a rainforest. Or rather, plans for a massive indoor rainforest.
It was going to be a wonder of the world. A giant terrarium — 4.5 acres — filled with free-roaming monkeys and tropical birds, as well as some unspecified prairie-dwelling animals (jackrabbits? Lesser prairie chickens?) in a separate section. In 2004, city leaders were convinced it would make Coralville an international tourism hotspot.
“Visitors could stroll on suspended wooden bridges 100 feet in the air, through the tops of hundreds of towering Brazilian beautyleaf and American mahogany trees,” the Des Moines Register wrote in 2004, describing what was supposed to happen if the dream became reality. “The 20-story enclosure would look like a giant foil-covered caterpillar to motorists next door on Interstate Highway 80.”
“Children would learn, researchers would study and tourists would roam through prairie, rain forest, an aquarium, an amphitheater or an IMAX-style theater in a kind of prairie-meets-the-Amazon setting.”
Next to Earthpark — the name eventually attached to the rainforest/prairie/IMAX/whatever complex — would be a new hotel and convention center. The city decided to call the whole thing the Iowa River Landing Project.
Many Coralville citizens never bought into the Earthpark idea. But city leaders did. After all, a very rich man was behind the project.
Ted Townsend of Des Moines started working on plans for a tropical rainforest in Iowa in 1996. Townsend’s father had been a successful inventor of meat-processing equipment, “including a profitable device that could strip rind from pork and stuff a hot dog at fantastic speeds,” journalist Peter Rugg wrote in his history of Earthpark. “At one point, 95 percent of all U.S. hot dogs were plumped with Townsend’s pork. The family became very wealthy.”
Peter Sollogug, a Boston architect who worked on the rainforest project in its earliest stages, told Rugg that Townsend was a selfless philanthropist who wanted to improve Iowa by giving it a rainforest like the ones he’d seen on trips to Africa.
“He never even wanted his name to be on anything, ever,” Sollogug said. “Never once mentioned calling this ‘The Ted Townsend Project.’ That’s one of the reasons they settled on the name ‘Iowa Child Project,’ really selling that this was about education.”
That name didn’t last. The name changed to the Iowa Environmental/Educational Project and then to the Iowa Environmental Project, before it became Earthpark. Normally, all those name changes might seem like a cause for concern, but it didn’t worry Coralville leaders.
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Townsend had persuaded universally beloved former governor Robert Ray to serve on the board of directors of the project, which reassured people. He was also an executive director of Earthpark, and was exceptionally well-connected in Iowa Republican political circles.
Political connections were important, because Iowa getting a rainforest always hinged on that rainforest getting taxpayer money. Although Townsend reportedly put millions of his own dollars into the project, its estimated cost ranged between $180 million and $300 million (depending on who you asked and when you asked them).
Getting Coralville to spend public money on a private business wasn’t a problem. The city is famous for its business tax breaks and incentives, doling them out at rates that jeopardize its creditworthiness and bond ratings. Coralville agreed to spend at least $10.6 million to buy property for the project to be built on.
State tax dollars were tapped, too. The Iowa legislature approved spending $75 million on the project. But it was the federal tax dollars that got the most attention.
In 2004, Sen. Chuck Grassley, who was running for reelection that year, announced he’d secured $50 million in matching funds for Earthpark. Grassley got the money by threatening to kill funding for other environmental projects, unless Congress supported the Coralville rainforest.
(In a 2006 story on how money buys influence in American politics, The Economist highlighted Grassley’s actions, noting that Townsend donated $3,000 to the senator’s reelection campaign, before Grassley secured the $50 million for Earthpark. Everything both Grassley and Townsend did was legal, and to The Economist that was as ridiculous as a rainforest in Iowa.)
Grassley’s backing made Earthpark seem like a sure thing. An old industrial park was selected as its site, and Coralville started buying up its businesses. Dolls Inc was one of them.
In October 2004, Dolls’ owners agreed to sell their property to the city for $6.3 million, and an additional $134,399 in relocation expenses. But the relocation never happened.
The club owners bought a 10-acre lot south of Hwy. 6 in Coralville as the site of a even bigger Dolls, before the old club closed in February 2005. The lot had originally been zoned “heavy industrial,” but had been reclassified as “light industrial.” That was a problem.
Coralville’s zoning code requires “adult-orientated” businesses to be in “heavy industrial” areas to keep them away from retail shopping areas.
Dolls’ owners sued, claiming the city’s zoning decisions were just an attempt to get rid of Coralville’s only strip club. A judge rejected that argument. Dolls never found a new home.
By 2006, Earthpark still hadn’t broken ground, and Coralville gave up on the dream. The city decided to build a more modest Iowa River Landing without a rainforest. Or a strip club.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 278.