Return to Nicholas Johnson Main Web Page

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Time to Build or Get Off the Lot

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 11, 2005

Supporting NOTES, below.

From Ted Townsend’s 1996 vision of an “Iowa Center for Health in a Loving Democracy” (the Iowa C-H-I-L-D rain forest) to advisory council member Sandra Hudson’s 2005 column (“’Rain Forest’ Serves Environment,” Mar. 23) rain forest boosters never lack for dreams.

The challenge is getting them to tether those dreams to reality.

Neither booster nor basher, I have been attempting that tethering at

Project backers, including Hudson, use a language of “will” and “is” as if the structure were built and will open next week.

It’s not, and it won’t.

Are there wonderful things one could do with a 200-foot dome covering 4.5 acres? Absolutely. And there are wonderful things one could do with pigs that fly. In fact, put them in the rain forest's caterpillar-like structure, charge admission, and you'd have a real Iowa tourist attraction.

The public has a big stake in the rain forest. If it fails we'll be paying for an embarrassing empty shell along I-80, a rotting rain forest and drained aquarium.

Promoters' dreams have included a dizzying array of possibilities: K-5 school, IMAX theater, rain forest atop plastic tree trunks (or not), with animals (or not), national tourist attraction, teacher training, displays of energy conservation, aquarium, hotel, and Hudson’s dream of “scientific research.”

No, dream shortages are not the problem. Focus is.

Elephant in the rain forest

Promoters used the Boston Globe to tell Coralville residents the rain forest would contain “poison arrow frogs and capuchin monkeys.” They have Hudson report that it is a “misconception” to think of the project as a tourist attraction since “the primary intent is scientific research and education.” Aren't these decisions the Iowa Child Board should make and reveal on its Web site?

Moreover, whatever it may turn out to be, the elephant in this rain forest, the decisive complication, is that there's not enough money to build or operate the structure. What’s represented to be a $180 million project remains a daunting $90 million short.

So far as the public knows, not one additional dime has been found during the past 12 months.

Even if they had the $180 million, what would it cover? Construction? Promotion? First year’s operation? They’re not telling.

Who’s to pay the inevitable cost overruns? Boston’s Big Dig price tag ran five times the initial projections. So did our local pride, the renovated Englert Theatre, as a $1 million budget became a $5 million project. Will local taxpayers pay for rain forest overruns?

In fact, informing the public has been a problem from the get go. For nearly a year the Iowa Child Website has promised it would be "updated soon." The additional transparency has yet to appear. They’ve begun dipping into that $50 million federal grant. For what?

When conceiving a project of this magnitude we all understand the value of brainstorming and what Hudson calls “the process of innovation.”

But we are now nine years into it and the promoters have not yet even settled on a name for what Hudson describes as “’the rain forest’ or ‘Iowa Child’ or ‘the Environmental Project,’ whatever you call it.” Interestingly, "Education" was inexplicably dropped from the name the same month Iowa's education chief Ted Stillwell came on board.

Show us the money

Nine years and there's still no public declaration of  specific program focus, detailed construction and staffing plans or budgets for construction, trees, animals and other features, pre-opening promotional expenses, and ongoing operations.

Isn’t it about time to wrap up this “process of innovation” and either build or get off the lot?

Actually, we're fortunate it's no longer to be a tourist attraction. Independent economists, and other attractions' failures, raise serious questions about its sustainability as such. Promoters projected attendance revenues would require every Iowan to visit it every two or three years forever, from the moment of their birth until death.

But a scientific research facility only redefines, rather than solves, operating cost challenges. Scientists are expensive. Where will the perpetual stream of grants come from? Where will the scientists come from? Can you say “Laser Center”? Do you remember Biosphere II?

We can appreciate rain forest enthusiasts' beautiful gossamer dreams floating through the fog of a rain forest. Now why don't they pick just one, share with us their detailed budgets, construction and program plans -- and "show us the money."
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and can be reached via his Web site,


In general, support for the factual assertions in this column can be found somewhere within the resources at the author's rain forest Web site, Examples follow.

"A local businessman, Ted Townsend (heir to the Townsend meat-packing fortune), came up with this idea while contemplating his legacy on a treadmill." Citizens Against Government Waste, Pig Book 2004, reproduced at

Sandra Hudson's column is available at

One of the first examples of the "will" and "is" language in the Hudson op ed (see link above) is: "The Environmental Project is really four scientific learning academies . . .." Numerous other examples follow throughout her column.

The Boston Globe revelation of the Coralville rain forest's animal species is found in Alan Scher Zagier, "If They Build It, Who Will Come? Iowa Builders Tout $180M Indoor Rain Forest, But Critics Unconvinced," Boston Globe, January 8, 2005,

The Boston "Big Dig" cost overruns are from CNN's report of a Boston Globe story at National Public Radio, "Morning Edition," reported March 28, 2005, that the cost has now reached $14.6 billion.

Since planning started, the cost estimate for the project has ballooned from $2.6 billion to $14.6 billion. It was supposed to have been completed five years ago.
. . .

The project never would have won the support of federal or state officials — or the public — if the true cost had been known in advance, said David Luberoff, co-author of “Mega-Projects,” which looks at the politics of projects like the Big Dig.

“I don’t think people lied, but there are incredible incentives to be at the low end of the estimate,” he said.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran, speaking at a recent meeting of newspaper publishers, was more blunt.

“You’d be much, much better off saying up front, factually, ’Hey, it’s going to take umpteen years likely and umpteen billions dollars’ rather than sell it as a kind of smoke and mirrors thing about 'Oh, it’s two billion and a couple of years work,”’ Finneran said.

AP, "Boston's 'Big Dig' Opens to Public," December 20, 2003, MSNBC,

The Press-Citizen reported regarding the Englert renovation costs: "With a project bill that has doubled to slightly more than $5 million in the past year . . .. [O]fficials once thought restoration was a $1 million endeavor." Brian Sharp and Deanna Truman-Cook, "Englert costs double to $5 million; Theater looking to fund-raising, loans," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 3, 2004, . See also Minutes from a June 27, 2002, meeting of the Johnson County Board of Supervisors which refers to an increase over one year from $2.1 to $4.3 million in the Englert budget,, and Deanna Truman-Cook, “Divisions end in Englert resignation; Executive director leaving after 1 year,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 9, 2005 (“Restoring the Englert to as it was in the early 1900s has been a $5 million project.”) .

Before construction had even begun the Coralville hotel bids were at least 25 percent over estimates. Zack Kucharski, "Coralville Hotel Bids Exceed Plan," Gazette, November 20, 2004,