If they build it, who will come?
Iowa builders tout $180m indoor rain forest, but critics unconvinced

Alan Scher Zagier

Boston Globe

January 8, 2005

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CORALVILLE, Iowa -- In a state that claims the world's biggest truck stop and a baseball diamond in a cornfield as two of the top visitor destinations, the search for a better tourist attraction is serious business.

In Iowa, where winter winds whip across the plains with ferocity, that quest has led to plans for an 18-story, $180 million environmental learning center anchored by an indoor rain forest -- also the world's largest.

"Iowa, in the eyes of many, is seen as flyover country," said David Oman, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Project. "We don't have seashores, we don't have large mountains. From a destination perspective, it usually doesn't hit people's Top 10 list. We aim to change that."

The indoor rain forest is the brainchild of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, a global manufacturing executive whose family made its fortune in the meatpacking industry.

Townsend put up $10 million for the project, which has an estimated price that once topped more than $300 million. When Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican, helped funnel a $50 million federal appropriation to the project via the Department of Energy, critics christened it with a new name apropos to the state's agricultural staple: the Iowa Pork Forest.

"It's a classic pork-barrel project, something that got inserted in the budget that's of dubious value," said David Hogberg, a former Iowa resident who works for Capitol Research Center, a conservative, free-market think tank in Washington. "Who's going to pay $15 to visit a rain forest in Iowa in the middle of winter?"

According to project boosters, plenty of people. They cite projections by three different organizations, including the state of Iowa and ConsultEcon Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, that predict annual attendance of 1.1 million to 1.5 million, figures that equal one-third to one-half of the state's population.

The environmental project -- part of a larger urban redevelopment effort located along Interstate 80 just across the Iowa River from Iowa City and the University of Iowa -- will create 300 permanent jobs and produce a ripple effect of 2,500 jobs in eastern Iowa and an annual economic impact of $187 million statewide, according to the Cambridge consultants.

Architectural sketches by the Boston firm of Chermayeff, Sollogub, and Poole Inc., which designed the New England Aquarium, show a caterpillar-shaped structure the length of four football fields and larger than the US Capitol. Inside, visitors will be able to walk through the rain forest canopy on scaffolding, surrounded by creatures such as poison arrow frogs, capuchin monkeys, sloths, walking stick insects, and other exotic flora and fauna.

Ted Stilwill, a former Iowa education secretary who in September joined the Iowa Environmental/Education Project as its director of learning, said the state needs to take bold steps to help reverse an economic downturn marked by the loss of family farms, an aging population, and the steady flight of Iowa's college graduates to more prosperous states.

"People were just hoping it would go back to the way it was. And that was just never going to happen," he said. "We need to take some risks, so the rest of the nation can see us differently, and we can see ourselves differently."

Stilwill and Oman tout a future in which the state's rural schools are linked by a fiber-optics network, enabling students and teachers across Iowa to study ecology, conservation, and environmental science. They stress that the project consists of more than just the rain forest; it will also include a 1 million square foot aquarium and an exhibit of native Iowa prairie.

It's the rain forest, though, that has garnered the bulk of Iowans' attention -- much of it negative. In a February survey of 800 state residents by the Des Moines Register, 56 percent agreed that the project is a "waste of money," with 36 percent thinking it "a good idea."

Nick Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor, called the project's attendance predictions unrealistic. He added that Coralville, population 15,000, wasn't even the first choice; city leaders in Des Moines rejected Townsend's overtures in favor of building a convention center and minor league arena.

"We're not one of the places in the United States that are destinations in their own right," he said. "Coralville is not a destination in the way New Orleans or Miami or Washington, D.C., is. And it's certainly not a destination like Disneyland."

He also noted that though Townsend first proposed his vision of a tropical oasis in Iowa eight years ago, he remains the only private source of financing other than an undisclosed utility company that has agreed to contribute $10 million in exchange for a role in powering the project.

Boosters still must raise another $90 million. They expect the state to contribute a portion of that balance. Groundbreaking is set for mid-2005, with a target opening of Earth Day in 2008.

Oman predicts that the project's "iconic architecture" will beckon thousands of travelers from nearby I-80 and become a symbol on par with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the Seattle Space Needle, and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

For now, though, the waterfront site, which will include a 300-room Marriott hotel, is a far cry from the New Urbanism vision espoused by Oman and others. At various times an industrial park, railroad yard, and University of Iowa coal repository, the property's current tenants include an adult bookstore, a drywall business, a frame and axle shop, and a junkyard.