Answers needed on rain forest

Norman Luxenburg

Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion

March 10, 2004

The fantastic cost overruns and even complete failure of so many tourist attractions pushed through at public expense should cause us to be extremely cautious and require solid, reliable answers from those pushing the Iowa Environmental/Education Project - the proposed Coralville rain forest.
What guarantees do we have that the project will cost only the $180 million? The first estimate for the Sydney Opera House was $7.2 million in Australian dollars. Once started, however, costs kept rising and just to complete the building cost $102 million. The total cost of the project reached $374 million! The New Orleans Superdome approved by Louisiana taxpayers was estimated to cost $35 million. It ended up costing $165 million. Will taxpayers pay up if it isn't finished at $180 million, or at $200 million or $250 million?

Then there are tourist projections that failed to materialize. The more than $1 billion London Green-wich Millennium Dome ushered in with such great fanfare on New Year's 2000 was a flop and has been closed to the public since December of that same year. The Guardian states, "Organizers of the dome had to make re-peated calls on the National Lottery for funds during its year of public opening in 2000 after the target of 12 million visitors proved to be too optimistic - only 6.5 million people passed through the doors." Subse-quently, it was up for bids, the high maintenance costs - $45 million in the first year alone covered by the taxpayer. The London Times noted, "The Int'l Development Sec. admits Millennium Dome has proved to be a disaster which should never have been built."

Where others have failed

Then we had the $93 million Denver Aquarium, which failing to attract the 1.1 million visitors on which it had relied and failing to get additional financial support was forced to close after three years. It was sold to the Landry food chain for a mere $13 million.

When we are told that this Coralville project will draw a million visitors a year at an entry fee about $14, we should not rely on statements such as "It has been estimated." What are the reliable estimates that there would ever be a million paying visitors after the first novelty year?

The magnificent Botanical Gardens in St. Louis and Greater St. Louis alone has a population almost equal to that of the whole state of Iowa draws about 700,000 visitors a year, in-cluding patrons and children under 12 who go free. The entrance fee is $7 for adults. This is half the projected Iowa admission price. The budget for the gardens is $27 million a year. Entrance fees cover only a small fraction of that cost. The gardens al-so get significant numbers of visitors because they are located in the vicinity of the world class St. Louis Zoo, the Planetarium and the Science Museum.

The Cleveland rain forest, which first opened in 1993, has the advantages of being adjacent to a first-class zoo in a city with a metropolitan area population as large as that of all of Iowa and some 20 million people within a three-hour drive. Nevertheless, only once, in its first year, did it come close to having a million admissions. After that, its attendance declined about 150,000 each of the two succeeding years. Subsequently, the admission fee to the zoo, $7 for adults and $4 for children, includes both the zoo and the rain forest. This fee is just about the same as that charged in Chicago and in Omaha where the one fee also includes both the zoo and the rain forest. In all these places, it is the zoo and not the rain forest that is the main and repeat attraction.

Coralville vs. Cornwall

Now it is said that a significant part of the projected Coralville rain forest attendance will come from the 50,000 vehicles that pass daily on Interstate 80. Most of that auto traffic is local and commuter, however. Many times that number of vehicles passes near the St. Louis gardens and the Cleve-land rain forest.

A recent television newscast implied that the Cor-alville project could do as well in attracting visitors as a similar rain forest in England's Cornwall, comparing distances from Chicago to Coralville and London to Cornwall. Lon-don, however, is not only much larger but gets about 25 million foreign visitors a year. There is also fast rail service from London to Cornwall, which along with the neighboring Devon coast have long been tourist attractions.

Backers of the rain forest say it can be built for $180 million, attract more than 1.1 million visitors annually and be self-supporting. Based on the record of similar projects, it seems abundantly clear that this is most unrealistic.

Reach Norman Luxenburg, a professor of Russian at the University of Iowa, at