As a Hindu, Indian philanthropist Bina Sella di Monteluce joked during a recent visit to Washington that she will have "many lives" in which to see her proposed National Children's Island in Northeast Washington become a reality.
But a decade after the Contessa Monteluce -- she is married to an Italian count -- began pumping $6 million into a new development firm, as well as providing architectural, public relations and legal fees for the project, it finally appears that one lifetime may be enough.
The D.C. Council last month approved the transfer of 45.5 acres on two scraggly islands in the Anacostia River from the federal government to the District as the site for the proposed educational and recreational park. Despite skeptics who challenge the project's viability, Monteluce, the 44-year-old daughter of a prominent Indian entrepreneur and philanthropist, said she hopes to nail down conditional financing agreements within six months.
Although it still faces procedural hurdles and some community opposition, Children's Island is closer to fruition than it has been since versions of the concept first were explored in the early 1970s. If all goes as planned -- and that's a big if, given the project's history -- the year-round park would open in mid-1997.
"I would like to see it finished before I am completely gray and in a wheelchair," Monteluce said in an interview.
The plan to turn Kingman and Heritage islands, near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, into a bustling park on the water is now the city's second-largest economic development proposal, after the new Redskins football stadium. But it has been plagued by costly false starts, including design flaws and years of wrangling between the District and the federal government over what to do with the property.
The project gained renewed momentum this year after the city struck a deal with Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke for a new 78,600-seat stadium. The deal did not include, as Cooke had once proposed, using the nearby islands for parking.
The park project would cost $100 million to $120 million, all of it private money. As part of a lease agreement between the District government and representatives of Children's Island, a cut of the income from the park would pay for educational and economic development programs in the city. Planners say the park would feature pavilions where children could learn about the human body or computers, experience a sense of weightlessness in a crystal-shaped room of mirrors or test their sports skills. They predict it will draw 3.3 million visitors annually at an average admission price of $10.50 each.
Monteluce said she believes that a fun and educational attraction two miles from the White House in what she called "the most elegant city in America" is a formula for success. "There is a captive audience here," said the London resident, who has developed properties in England and eight U.S. cities, but never a theme park.
She has remained the project's sole savior for reasons that are both material and spiritual. Monteluce said that just after she found out she was pregnant in the spring of 1983, one of her financial advisers suggested Children's Island to her.
"I thought it was an omen," she said. "The idea of putting business and philanthropy together was on my mind at the time."
Monteluce is on the board of Inlaks Foundation, a Liechtenstein-based educational and medical philanthropic group with operations in India and Nigeria. She also is involved in the Switzerland-based Inlaks Group, a private conglomerate founded by her father, whose interests include shipping, aluminum refining and financial management.
Some other companies in the theme park business do not share Monteluce's enthusiasm for Children's Island. Ten firms, including Walt Disney Co., turned down offers in the early 1980s to finance and manage the project, though Children's Island planners say most of those companies could not get involved because they were involved in other projects.
Bruce Thorp, a leisure industry analyst for PNC Bank in Phildelphia, said Children's Island "sounds like a terrible idea." He said he was not sure the project, which would include a 13.5-acre playground, would be able to compete with the myriad tourist attractions in or near the District or with the Kings Dominion theme park in Virginia.
Restrictions on how much of the islands can be developed -- only 10 percent can be alloted for the pavilions -- also could limit revenue, according to Interior Department officials.
Nonetheless, Monteluce is holding discussions with foreign banks and corporations about arranging the financing. But she knows how tenuous such deals can be: Banks scrapped three previous financing arrangements for Children's Island because of delays in the project.
Further delays could be on the horizon.
Congress must approve the 30-year lease, which the District negotiated with the nonprofit National Children's Island Inc. and its for-profit partner, Island Development Corp. And an environmental impact study must be conducted.
Also, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund has filed suit, alleging that the federal government improperly transferred the land before conducting the environmental study. The suit seeks to reverse the transfer, saying the government should explore other uses for the site.
According to the Audubon Society, the islands serve as a refuge for 60 species of birds, including eagles, blue herons, egrets and ospreys. The Anacostia Watershed Society, a group dedicated to cleaning up the river, has proposed a nature reserve and environmental park.
The islands were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1916 when the river's swamplands were dredged to eradicate malaria. Heritage Island is vacant, and the District uses Kingman Island as a dump for leaves and tree stumps.
Some community opponents argue that Children's Island, with the new Redskins stadium and the possible Barney Circle Freeway project, would inundate their neighborhoods with development.
Calling such concerns "fear of the unknown," Monteluce said the project "will have a trickle-down effect" that will benefit the economy of the entire city. She is confident that Children's Island will flourish -- eventually.
"When I first got involved," she said, offering a measure of her frustration, "my son was minus 9 months" old. Today, he is 9 years old.