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Storm brews over islands

Two competing visions--both under the banner of education--are vying for the future of two small islands in the Anacostia River near the heart of the nation's capital.

One vision would use the long-neglected Heritage and Kingman islands as a platform for a glittering multimillion-dollar theme park offering virtual reality and computer simulations that blend entertainment and education, say officials of the Island Development Corp., which is creating plans for "National Children's Island."

Larry Goodwin, the vice president of the development group, says investors hope to raise $150 million for the 45-acre project. The park is backed by Washington's business community and local officials. The company has sugared the proposal with such promises as a free ticket for every 5th grader in the city and jobs for local youths.

The project crossed a big hurdle in July, when President Clinton signed legislation transferring ownership from the National Park Service to the District of Columbia, which plans to lease them to the developers.

But neighboring residents oppose the project, saying the projected 1.2 million visitors a year would just add to congestion.

Environmentalists, led by the Anacostia Watershed Society, also have an educational vision for the islands: a small nature center and canoe dock to teach local youths about the river and the problems of urban river ecosystems.

Robert Boone, the executive director of the watershed group, has taken teenagers on river trips in the area for several years.

Both sides appear to have exaggerated the condition of the islands, which were built in 1916 from dredge material. The developers call them little more than "a dump," while environmentalists have called them a "pristine" home to bald eagles. The truth is in between, park service officials say.

For now, the future of the islands is in the hands of the city council and the area planning commission. If the project is not approved or implemented, ownership of the islands will revert to the park service.


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