More Needed on Iowa Child

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," February 13, 2001, p. 9A

How is the Iowa Child project like a Moscow television station?

After the thaw in the Cold War, former President Jimmy Carter created a Radio and Television Commission. It offered American media experience to the former Soviet republics.

We were at first pleased with a Moscow representative’s proposal for a new TV station.

“What would it cost?” I asked. “$100 million,” he said.

What’s the programming? Who’s the manager? Let’s see your business plan.

It turned out he assumed we’d just give him $100 million and ask no questions.

The only difference between this $100 million Moscow TV station and a $300 million Iowa Child is $200 million.

The issue? Here’s an analogy.

In the mid-'60s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was happy to accept ships for military sealift to Vietnam subsidized out of my Maritime Administration budget. But he refused to endorse or pay for the multibillion-dollar subsidies.

He calculated everything the subsidy accomplished (jobs, balance of payments, moving cargo, defense) could be done cheaper in other ways.

That’s the issue raised by Iowa Child. It’s not whether a rain forest in Iowa is totally bonkers or a neat thing. It’s not whether $300 million is a lot of money. The first railroad track through Iowa City also cost a lot of money. The question is whether the public benefits are worth the public costs.

Because it claims to be an educational project – complete with school and teacher training – this column has tried to evaluate it.

The project had a Web page, copyright 1999. No longer. At the time of writing promoters are “currently updating” the site.

Without specifics evaluation’s difficult.

News reports reflect a shifting focus. IMAX theaters, teacher training, and hotels come and go like a desert mirage.

So do financial projections of costs and revenue.

It’s hard to imagine any Iowa City banker loaning even $300, let alone $300 million, for such an unfinished proposal.

There’s nothing wrong with even nutty entrepreneurial ideas. So long as (a) the capital comes from investors, (b) the project does the community no harm, and (c) abandoned facilities can be used by others after the inevitable bankruptcy.

This project fails all three standards.

What do you do with an abandoned, rotting, artificial rain forest?

It may be a great idea. But it does raise a lot of concerns and questions beyond education: costs and revenues, depletion of local water supplies and electric power, risk of harm to the rainforest’s plants and animals, medical risks to humans from imported organisms.

Why would anyone call a hotel, office building, and shops the “Iowa Child”? A project that has little to do with children and nothing to do with Iowa?

Could it be hype? An emotional appeal to use taxpayers’ money for private profit?

The project hopes for $75 million from the Legislature’s Vision Iowa fund, more from the federal government. Coralville is talking cash, free land and no taxes (meaning everyone else in Johnson County pays more).

Using taxpayers’ money as start-up capital or post-failure bailout is called “socialism for the rich and free private enterprise for the poor.”

It's like taxpayers paying for professional athletic facilities where millionaires play games for the profit of billionaires.

But it’s the education component that’s least developed.

Unless the rain forest becomes its own school district, its proposed school is in a limbo the promoters claim as “within the world of public education” – but beyond the control of our school boards and teachers.

Students? They’ll be chosen by lottery and come from surrounding counties. There’s no mention of where teachers – or their pay – come from.

The teachers’ training facility has no ties to any college of education, faculty, budget or curriculum.

As with any proposal, “The devil is in the details.” But at this point in time the question about Iowa Child is: Where the devil are those details?

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site