Opportunity knocks for Iowa with IEEP

Beth Jorgensen

Guest Opinion

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 13, 2004

What's next?

Project organizers are seeking private funding and investments to begin construction. A symbolic groundbreaking is planned for this autumn.
A knock sounds at the door. You do as the reasonable person does and look out the window before opening. And what luck! There stands a most welcome but infrequent visitor: Opportunity! You reach to fling wide the door, but your hand is stilled.

"Wait!" says a voice. "He's awfully big, and he's not alone. Look -- his cousin stands behind. Chance."

What to do? Open the door to Opportunity, or leave it shut, lest Chance spoil things? After all, Chance can go either way, bringing fortune good or poor. Which stands here?

And so you study Chance. You pull all your re-sources and run some thorough background checks; you determine this Chance is a pretty good guy, stable. Along with his cousin, Opportunity, he offers knowledge to both old and young, the creation of multiple jobs to the area, an impressive economic impact to your state, possible solutions, even, to issues confronting the entire global community. An opportunity indeed!

You open the door.

Opportunity has knocked on Iowa's door, and the door has been opened (after running, of course, those checks on Chance.) The Iowa Environmental/Education Project has crossed our threshold, and initial groundbreaking is just months away. Many already are hard at work trying to give Opportunity as much room as possible in which to grow (and grow he will). But while the threshold has been crossed and initial groundbreaking stands just months away, growth of the project can yet be optimized by support of us all.

Beneath the surface

The IEEP brings more than a rain forest. Yes, the 30-acre plans do include a 4.5-acre indoor tropical rain forest. They also include a million-gallon freshwater aquarium, 10 acres of re-created Iowa tall grass prairie and wetlands and a system of interconnected outdoor trails. They include a 50,000-square-foot learning center and research facility, multiple interactive galleries and a mixed media theater. These are the surface features of Opportunity.

Beneath that surface, the IEEP seeks to increase our understandings of the world's environmental issues. That's a big mission, an important mission, a global mission. It will be the world's largest ecologically oriented learning environment, born into a community long recognized for its interest in, and concern for, the environment. The Heart-land. What a nurturing place for such a project to grow.

Imagine -- a facility in which all systems are visible to you, the visitor. From the top of the dome to the roots of the plants, no hidden systems inhibit learning. During your visit you are, perhaps, interested in learning more about water cycles, so your experience is personalized with your own electronic passport. During your next visit you may be interested in the interdependence of life in the rain forest. Again, a personalized passport.

While at the facility you might work side-by side with a researcher checking the levels of carbon dioxide in the air. Use digital imagery to see how levels compare around the world. Are things in balance? Healthy?

Your school-aged child might work on a project to learn more about Iowa's wetlands, interacting with the facility from school through Internet connections or the Iowa Cable Net-work. Your child's teacher may attend professional development classes at the facility, or assist, there, in the training of tomorrow's teachers. The IEEP promises something for everyone who loves learning.

Thinking long-term

Yes, the IEEP comes with a much-publicized tag of $180 million (land included). Half of this funding already has been secured. The additional funding is confidently anticipated. The project's site is the only one in the nation to receive five separate grants from the Environmental Protection Agency. This demonstrates a strong vote of confidence in the project's success.

Long-term economic benefits outweigh these initial costs. ConsultEcon Inc. estimates effects of visitor spending alone at $187 million. This is expected to result in a ripple effect of 2,900 full- and part-time jobs, with wages exceeding $42 million. The impact just in Johnson County is expected to reach $85 million annually with a ripple effect of 1,400 full- and part-time jobs and associated earning of nearly $28 million.

Attendance is conservatively estimated at between 1.1 million to 1.5 million each year during a stabilized year of operation -- several years after the IEEP's opening. The only comparable exhibit in the word is the Eden Project, located in Cornwall, England's most rural county. Attendance there has far surpassed expectations. 1.8 million people visited in its first year of operation. Its stable-year attendance has settled to 1.5 visitors annually.

Opportunity has entered, and soon we will witness birth of a world-class facility. In the heartland of our country, fed by the arterial of Interstate 80 and fostered by a supportive community, the IEEP will host examination to issues of global importance. Welcome, Opportunity. What better place than the Heartland for this project to grow?

Reach Beth Jorgensen, a national board certified teacher at Wickham Elementary and past recipient of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics teaching, at beth.jorgensen@mchsi. com.