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How Big Will Des Moines Think?

Beth Dalbey

Des Moines Business Record Online

January 22, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Business Record, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Business Record.]

Unless Iowa Environmental Project founder Ted Townsend funnels millions of dollars more into a $122 million indoor rain forest, it’s doubtful Des Moines will make a pitch to become its home, a group of influential business leaders said in a statement last week.

Townsend already has bankrolled the rain forest with an amount he said is “north of $10 million,” but without additional financial support from him at the “significant eight-figure level,” large individual and corporate contributions will be difficult to obtain, according to a statement signed by entrepreneur Jim Cownie, attorney Steven Zumbach, real estate developer Bill Knapp and Mary O’Keefe, a senior vice president at Principal Financial Group Inc. That company is the lead donor in a $55 million riverwalk project that will help link cultural and recreational attractions and create new amenities downtown.

Townsend, who had not talked anyone involved in the meeting, said that for the corporate community to support the project “as some sort of favor to Ted would be inappropriate,” but, he added, “a requirement for me to stand up again before anyone else does anything seems inappropriate.”

“I already went first once, and Sen. Grassley went first,” Townsend said of U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, who used his influence as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to secure a $50 million Department of Energy grant for the project in 2003. Grassley’s office has placed spending restrictions on the grant, and has given project backers two years to raise a matching amount, either in cash or in-kind services, or risk losing it.

Zumbach, Cownie, Knapp and O’Keefe prefaced their statement with an acknowledgement that the scope of the 300,000-square-foot, 150-foot-high rain forest reflects Townsend’s reputation as “a big thinker” who sets his goals high and settles for nothing less, and they also recognized his past support of the community. However, they said that though there is support for the project in Des Moines, “the question which is now on the table is whether or not there is enough private support to proceed with the project.”

Councilwoman Christine Hensley, who along with Mayor Frank Cownie and Acting City Manager Rick Clark met recently with the four business leaders, said city officials see tourism and economic development opportunities for Des Moines in the project, but that assuming the city will move forward with a formal proposal is “a big assumption.”

“It would be very difficult for the city to move forward without the business community on board,” she said.

Hensley said she overcame reservations about the rain forest and became a “true believer” after a visit last March to the Cornwall, England-based Eden Project, which has much in common with the Environmental Project. Like Eden, the Environmental Project would create tropical settings in large simulated biomes and provide an educational platform to make learning about environmental issues fun.

“When Ted Townsend first came forward, I had some real reservations,” Hensely said. “It came into the queue with all the projects out there – the Science Center and so on – and I didn’t know how we could do it, but those projects are built or nearing completion. I’ve gone from having major doubts to thinking this is so unique and would be such a draw for the metropolitan area – for the entire state – and it would happen to be in the capital city.”

Located in a remote area of southwest England and difficult to reach by vehicle, the Eden Project has had a dramatic effect on the local economy, according to a report from the South West Economic Review, which described Eden as a “beacon of hope.” According to that report, Eden drew 1.8 million visitors during its first year of operation in 2001, has drawn crowds exceeding 1.2 million since then, and has a total annual economic impact of around 96.2 million pounds ($170 million).

“Eden is in a no-man’s land and you have to work to get there, but you can see what it has done for such an impoverished area that was just crying for attention,” Hensley said. “It’s taken a whole area of the country and completely revitalized it.”

She thinks the Environmental Project has similar potential for in Des Moines if financing hurdles can be overcome. But that’s a big “if,” she said.

“Is there a political will to figure out how to make it happen?” she said. “I’m not sensing there is yet. We don’t have a lot of time.”

The business leaders who met with Hensley and other city officials said their reticence to endorse the project is due in part to outstanding corporate and private pledges the Iowa Events Center, Science Center of Iowa and other Capital City Vision projects. “Given the current commitments by the private sector to existing projects, we think it will be difficult to secure the lead gifts necessary to move forward,” they said in the statement. They also cited the need “to verify the project is economically feasible.”

Privately, some other community leaders are saying that if multimillionaire Townsend so strongly believes in the project’s potential to make Iowa a destination for hundreds of thousands of out-of-state visitors, he should finance it with his own fortune. Townsend is the sole owner of Townsend Engineering Co., which has annual revenues around $80 million, and whose sale is pending to a Dutch company, Stork Food Systems.

When he originally proposed the rain forest in 1997 as the Iowa Child Project, it was packaged with the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a research sanctuary he built on Des Moines’ Southeast Side for the study of the communication habits of primates. The projects were separated for the sake of integrity – the rain forest draws on species from South America, the ape facility on species from Africa – and Townsend said that between them, he’s given more than $30 million.

Townsend said he hasn’t ruled out the possibility he’ll give more to support the science learning platform and other educational missions of the project, its focal point from the beginning, after a site is selected. A site-selection committee made up of three Environmental Project board members – former Maytag Corp. president and CEO Leonard Hadley, former state auditor Richard Johnson and attorney Betsy Roe, a consultant and ambassador for Pella-based Central College and a former member of Gov. Tom Vilsack’s Iowa 2010 Strategic Planning Commissions – is expected to make its site recommendation to the full board by the end of the first quarter.

Des Moines, which turned down a bid for the rain forest when Townsend proposed the idea in 1997, then as the Iowa Child Project because of its focus on education, resurfaced as a potential site after project leaders and Coralville city officials sparred over land-transfer issues late last year. Coralville is still a strong contender for the rain forest, but Environmental Project leaders also have received overtures from more than a half-dozen other Iowa communities during the past several months. Other Iowa cities eyeing the project include Dubuque, Grinnell, Tiffin, Riverside and a couple that haven’t yet been made public.

“We’ve made zero effort to solicit them,” said David Oman, the Environmental Project’s executive director. “They came our way.”

Fueling renewed interest in the rain forest among some Des Moines leaders is the idea of coupling it with a possible future expansion and relocation of the Blank Park Zoo, then building synergies with existing and planned amenities and attractions, such as the Science Center of Iowa, the Principal Riverwalk, the World Food Prize Foundation, the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens, Wells Fargo Arena, the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines and other public venues.

Connecting the zoo and rain forest at a downtown site would be expensive, likely doubling the cost of expanding the zoo at its current South Side location, said Blank Park Zoo CEO Terry Rich. Still, he said, the idea of a partnership is “intriguing” and would likely increase traffic at the zoo from about 300,000 visitors annually to close to 1.3 million, the number of people who annually visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, whose 60,000-square-foot rain forest is about one-fifth the size of that proposed for the Environmental Project.

Rich said the zoo’s board of directors is amenable to hearing more about a possible partnership, but its focus is fixed on creating a world-class zoo

“The city’s being visionary in trying to find ways bring people from outside the city, state and U.S. into Des Moines, but the real financial question is, how much increased attendance does it take to justify the additional capital dollars?” he said. “The project sounds great, feels great and looks great, but it boils down to money.”

It also boils down to public relations for the publicly battered project. For years, the Environmental Project has been the subject of late-night talk show jokes and been called everything from a “pork forest” because of Grassley’s Energy Department earmark to a “folly.” Oman said the criticism has strengthened the project, both in design and clarification of its mission to improve mankind’s understanding of the interdependencies of the world’s most diverse, yet most threatened ecosystem.

“We get better every time we get pushed and have to solve problems,” Oman said. “You don’t pull something like this off without challenges, and we’ve had to deal with those, and as a result, our project is much better defined than has ever been true.”

As Environmental Project officials determine if Coralville remains the best site for the project or if it is better suited to another location, the project has gone through major revisions since it was first proposed. For one thing, the cost has been scaled back to $122 million from $180 million.

The current design calls for 150-foot-tall structure with two dome structures, one a 160,000-square-foot naturally lighted area with a 575,000-gallon aquarium in what will become one of the largest “green” construction projects ever undertaken in the United States, Oman said. Though the ecosystem inside will be representative of a South American rain forest, plant life in the outside perimeter areas will celebrate Iowa’s wetlands and prairies. Roofing on the domes will be of a transparent material known as Foiltec, whose opacity can be adjusted to accommodate the different photosynthesis needs of the plants inside. Durable yet lightweight, it’s 1 percent the weight of an equivalent pane of glass and can withstand high wind sheers and heavy snowfalls. Using biomass rather than natural gas to fuel heating and cooling system, it will consume one-third less energy per square foot than a typical office building, Oman said. By making the intricacies of those systems visible to visitors and using Iowa-grown fuels, the rain forest could emerge as a model for the efficient distribution of energy, Oman said.

New partners have been brought on board, including Grimshaw Architects, the designer of the Eden Project, and a new program management company, KUD International, a division of one of the world’s largest construction companies, Japan-based Kajima Corp. With local partners RDG Planning and Design and construction manager Weitz-Turner, the Environmental Project has assembled “the country’s largest construction dream team,” Oman said.

“Their challenge is to create something really different, large-scale and unique, something that could become an icon for the state, that when people see it, they know it’s in Iowa,” he said. “Our state doesn’t have a Gateway Arch. For many, it’s ‘fly over’ and ‘drive through.’”

Officials with the Eden Project, where a $26.3 million education center called The Core recently opened, have indicated a desire to partner with the Environmental Project. That would be particularly helpful in developing the educational platform of the Iowa project, one of its most misunderstood components, Oman said. He explained that learning opportunities would exist not only for K-12 and college students, but also for executives who want to learn green construction standards and better understand environmental issues.

“Smart companies are in a headlong race to become more environmentally conscious and to become known as a firm with an interest in environmental ethics,” he said. “The opportunity for the project is to become a focal point, to be a participant if not a leader in that conversation.”

Both Townsend and Oman said though they live in the metro area, they’re not championing Des Moines over any other Iowa community.

Even so, Oman said, “Des Moines has the confidence of having planned and pulled off a number of projects recently, but this unexpected opportunity to look at doing something with the zoo is remarkable.

“The question Des Moines has to ask itself now is, does it have the appetite to do something else? The projects to date are wonderful and clearly add to the quality of life and workforce retention. Now the question, and not just in Des Moines but in some of the other communities, is whether they can take advantage of the opportunity for a true destination attraction that pulls people off the interstate. Can we create some voluntary toll booths along the way that cause people to pull off and spend a half-day or a day or, ideally, a day and one night, to take advantage of these various amenities.”

Regardless of which site eventually is selected, Oman said the project will face the same uphill battle backers of other iconic structures have encountered through history. For example, he said, the idea for Mount Rushmore was proposed in the mid-1920s as an attraction to draw visitors to the remote, far-western area of South Dakota, but carving wasn’t completed until late 1941.

“This is a hard state to pull off bold projects,” Oman said. “We are risk-averse, and we tend to look in the rear-view mirror as well as over the hood of the car, and that adds to the challenge of creating something unique and special that will do a world of good.”