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What Works: Colonial Williamsburg and Coralville's Rain Forest

Nicholas Johnson

June 29, 2005

When evaluating proposals for an indoor, 4.5-acre rain forest in Coralville, Iowa, it's useful to examine the features that bring success to other educational attractions around the country.

The Coralville project is criticized for its lack of funding, focus, operational plans, budgets, business plan and realistic projections of cash flow. The constructive questions posed by skeptics, and unaddressed by promoters, deserve answers.

It's a little reminiscent of the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes." [] The material from which the emperor's clothes were made, promoted as so fine as to be invisible to the stupid, was in fact non-existent, leaving the emperor to parade through the streets naked until identified as such by a young boy with the courage to speak out.

But the mere fact that the rain forest currently stands as naked as a hardwood tree in an Iowa winter does not mean that visible covering could not be found.

First, looking to projects that do work financially is a little more upbeat than always focusing on the rain forest's failings. Second, even if we never have a rain forest the lessons may be applicable to other community promotional efforts. Finally, it may offer enough suggestions we could copy to make a rain forest workable -- or, make it abundantly obvious there's no way to get there from here.

Last year I did this kind of analysis of Omaha's Henry Doorly zoo, "Coralville Project Can't Match Up to Omaha's Zoo." [] Some of the zoo's advantages were found to be its
130-acre area, multiple exhibits, entertainment emphasis, income from concessions, cheap admission, pay-in-advance construction with no debt, minimized staff, large urban population, a history going back to 1895, reliance on community support for attendance (half the visitors are "members') and financing (half of the Desert Dome's $31.5 million budget came from one contributor). And yet rain forest promoters, with none of these advantages, are promising greater attendance their first year than Omaha built up over a century.

This year the comparison is with Colonial Williamsburg [], an experience I've returned to enjoy numerous times during my lifetime, including June 8th of this year.

Like the major contribution to Omaha's Desert Dome, and the rain forest's Ted Townsend, Colonial Williamsburg also had a wealthy benefactor, one a little better off than either: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Beginning in 1926 it was his money, and an enthusiasm that continued until his death in 1960, that made it possible for this project to begin.

The size of his vision far exceeded that of Townsend. Rockefeller wanted to recreate, with as much scholarly accuracy as possible, an outdoor "museum" (actually the nation's largest) encompassing nothing less than an entire town. It was to be populated with tradespeople and actors that could bring to life for Americans the central role of the history of this 18th Century time and place in all that followed and became America.

Why choose Williamsburg? From 1699 to 1780 Williamsburg was the center of cultural and political life in the most populous and influential of the colonies. This was where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other early patriots debated and drafted a revolution and the ideas and documents that still govern us today.

Like the Omaha zoo, Colonial Williamsburg is a non-profit corporation (actually a foundation) that operates with no federal money in a marketplace that requires the most professional business skills and the widest possible public support. Like Omaha, only a portion of its operating costs come from ticket sales. There are numerous for-profit subsidiaries (rides, carrousels and restaurants in Omaha; a golf course, conference center, restaurants, hotels (one on the "500 greatest hotels in the world" list), publications and videos at Williamsburg -- many true to the historic theme. You can lunch on 18th Century cuisine at the Raleigh Tavern where the Stamp and Townshend Acts were debated after hours.).

The dimensions of Colonial Williamsburg are hard to grasp without a visit. The grounds cover over 300 acres containing hundreds of restored, reconstructed and historically furnished buildings and 90 acres of some 100 period gardens -- surrounded by 3000 acres of greenbelt to protect it from unwelcome modernity. There are 3500 employees and an annual operating budget over $200 million.

It declares that its "core mission is education," and pretty much holds to that with its programs. Several million objects from 60 years of ongoing serious archeological digs and scholarship are at the foundation of the reconstruction efforts. The Teacher Institute has trained over 3000 K-12 teachers. Hundreds of thousands of students have enjoyed "study visits," and one million a year come on "electronic field trips." The Foundation operates three museums, and the Institute of Early American History and Culture is a collaborative project with the local College of William and Mary. The Rare Breeds Program is a scholarly effort to preserve livestock breeds from Colonial times. The educational Web site gets over 200 million hits from over 5 million users. It's a very rich source of all kinds of material, including videos and even "podcasts." And of course there is a full variety of various symposia, lectures and programs of various kinds.

Like the local Englert Theatre restoration undertaking (which raised all of its $5 million locally), and unlike the rain forest project (which has received no known local money), Colonial Williamsburg is blessed with substantial local, and even national, support. There are over 100,000 donors who are averaging gifts in excess of $100 each per year. Income from donations have increased from $5.6 million in 1995 to $12 million in 2003. (Counting grants and pledges it was about $40 million.) There is an endowment that varies in value from $500 to $700 million depending on the market, and a new $500-million-by-2005 fundraising effort that appears to be on target. (Since 1976 60% of the donations have come from individuals, 32% from foundations.) As mentioned, there is no federal or state money -- unlike the rain forest's current, and hoped for, funding.

Colonial Williamsburg has been visited over the years by 100 million visitors, and 100 heads of state including 9 U.S. presidents. I chose to take a delegation of officials from various NATO nations there on one occasion. It is internationally regarded as a top "must see."

Like the rain forest proposed for Coralville, Williamsburg, Virginia, is a relatively small town. Unlike Coralville, but more like Omaha, Williamsburg is within an easy drive for millions of potential visitors. And yet, notwithstanding its attraction and international reputation, like Omaha, and most U.S. attractions, it turns out that 80% or more of the visitors to Williamsburg are within a two or three hour drive.

There are roughly 15 million residents of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, from which many of the visitors come. There's more than half-again as many across the river in North Carolina. By contrast, the entire population of Iowa is less than 3 million, and most living west of Des Moines are closer to the rain forest in the Omaha zoo than they would be to Coralville.

Consider for a moment this monumental undertaking, its importance to every American, its international reputation, its numerous outreach efforts, the tens of millions of persons within an easy drive, its attraction as family vacation, resort, conference center and educational experience, its $600 million-plus endowment, 300 acres and 3500 employees, the award-winning hotels, restaurants, conference centers and golf courses.

Think about those features and then compare them with the most grandiose dreams of the rain forest cheerleaders.

The rain forest promoters are promising 1.3 to 1.5 million visitors a year to their site.

So how many is Williamsburg getting? Colonial Williamsburg's attendance has dropped in recent years from the range of 900,000 to 800,000 to 700,000 from 2001 to 2003.

Does it seem reasonable to think that a rain forest in Coralville, Iowa, will be able attract 50% to 100% more visitors than Colonial Williamsburg on the nation's east coast?