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Rain Forest Won't Grow in D.M., So Just Admit It

David Elbert

Des Moines Register

January 22, 2006

And see, below, Leaders' Concerns and Rain Forest History.

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, 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 Register.]

Iowa's rain forest project is dead, or soon will be as far as Des Moines is concerned.

Much of the Des Moines business community recognizes that the rain forest isn't going anywhere. But individuals are reluctant to say so publicly for fear of offending supporters, who include former Gov. Bob Ray, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and businessman Ted Townsend, who came up with the idea.

Four prominent local business leaders met recently to share their doubts with each other. All four are seasoned insiders who know how to make things happen — Jim Cownie, Bill Knapp, Steven Zumbach and Mary O'Keefe.

When they were done, Zumbach made a list of their concerns, which centered on money and the belief that the amount needed to make the project fly in Des Moines is too much and can't be raised.

Another concern is a fear that the rain forest will become a distraction from other work that's under way and needs to be completed.

I heard similar comments last week from four other leaders, who oppose efforts to revive the project in Des Moines but don't want to be identified as opposing it.

I understand their reason for not coming forward. People don't like to pour cold water on other people's ideas. Des Moines business leaders have always been a live-and-let-live group when it comes to community projects.

I wrote the first story about the rain forest in 1997, and I've followed the concept with interest as it moved from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids to Coralville.

Townsend, who was traveling last week, sent an e-mail saying he is aware of local leaders' financial concerns, although "I've not had any personal dialogues" with the people voicing concern.

"Several elected officials have pursued the project," he said, "but everybody recognizes it's up to the private sector to decide if Des Moines wants to be considered. Depending on the day, I hear the full range of reactions and prediction."

Several Iowa communities are interested in the rain forest, he said, and the project's 24-member board of directors will make a decision on a new location in March.

A lot has happened in the nine years since Townsend proposed the project.

In 1997, the price tag was $330 million. Today, it's down to either $200 million or $150 million, depending on who's doing the counting.

To make it work, Zumbach's group believes backers would need to raise significant amounts of private money in addition to the $50 million in federal money obtained by Sen. Charles Grassley two years ago.

David Oman, who has helped spearhead the effort for the past four years, says it's not as much as Zumbach suggests.

All Des Moines would have to come up with is $25 million in public or private money, Oman said. There are other unnamed backers who will supply additional money, along with the $50 million in federal funds. Whatever is left can be financed with debt, he said.

It's clear that supporters and opponents have significantly different ideas of what the cost will be.

They also differ on what purpose the rain forest would serve.

Oman says the project would bring in more than 1 million visitors a year, create 200 jobs and generate up to $150 million a year in economic value. Backers have claimed the project has educational, tourism and economic development components.

The business leaders, however, see it as mostly a tourism project. They say it makes little sense as either an educational or economic development project.

If you try to think of it as an educational project, they said, you quickly realize that's an awful lot of money to build one school or learning center, or whatever you want to call it. Just think what the $50 million from Grassley's federal grant could do if you spent all of that on education, one leader said. .

As far as economic development goes, said another leader, the rain forest's impact would be more like Altoona's Adventureland — minimal to nonexistent — than like West Des Moines' Jordan Creek mall, which has helped spur substantial retail, commercial and residential development.

That leaves tourism, and the Zumbach group said they'd want independent verification of how many visitors the rain forest would attract before they'd ever consider supporting the project.

The Zumbach group said that for the project to work in Des Moines, "lead gifts will need to be at a significant eight-figure level with additional private corporate support at the seven-figure level."

Eight figures is $10 million. To me, a "significant eight-figure level" would be $20 million or more.

Who in this community has the ability to do that?

I can think of only a handful of companies that have made commitments like that in the past, and rarely on a single project — Principal Financial Group, Wells Fargo, Hy-Vee and Meredith Corp.

All four companies are involved in other projects, specifically the downtown riverwalks and Iowa Events Center, and until those projects have shaken out all the bugs and proved successful, I doubt that any of those companies will be lining up to make significant donations to another local project.

The number of individuals capable of making eight-figure commitments to civic projects is also short. By my count, it includes John Ruan, John Pappajohn, Marvin Pomerantz, Denny Albaugh and Townsend. Like the businesses listed above, all, except Townsend are involved in continuing projects. Even if they weren't Townsend is the only one that I know of who has ever shown up as rain-forest backer.

A list of potential seven-figure contributors is a little longer. It includes Bill Knapp, Jim Cownie, Gary Kirke, Bill Krause, Dick Jacobson, Bill Van Orsdel, Jim Hubbell and maybe Mike Gartner and Denny Elwell. Again, none has been identified during the past nine years as a backer of the rain forest.

Perhaps the biggest concern of people like Zumbach is that the rain forest could become a distraction at a time when community leaders need to focus their attention on the bigger picture.

That bigger picture is all of the stuff we've created in recent years, everything from the skywalks to the riverwalks, the East Village, Science Center of Iowa, Iowa Events Center, Pappajohn Higher Education Center, Principal Park, Gateway Park, new library, Temple for Performing Arts, downtown housing, Court Avenue and more.

All are important projects, Alexander Garvin, a world-renowned city planner from New York, told local officials last month.

In fact, he said, some could be world-class projects. But they won't be, he said, until Des Moines figures out a "public realm framework" to tie them together.

He said he didn't know what that framework would be.

But he was clear that the last thing Des Moines needs right now is another, unrelated major project.

Leaders' Concerns

    Four business leaders met last week and drew up a list of concerns related to creating a man-made rain forest in the Des Moines area. Members of the group were former cable TV executive and philanthropist Jim Cownie, real estate developer and philanthropist Bill Knapp, attorney Steven Zumbach and Principal Financial Group Senior Vice President Mary O'Keefe.

The four released a statement praising the vision of project initiator Ted Townsend, but raised questions about financial support for the $200 million project. It said:

• "Lead gifts will need to be at a significant eight-figure level, with additional private/corporate support at the seven-figure level."

• To induce such contributions, Townsend, who has already contributed $10 million of his own money to the project, will need "to make additional contributions at a significant eight-figure level."

The statement expressed concern about the ability to obtain the lead gifts, given that "our corporate community committed significant dollars" in recent years to projects such as the Iowa Events Center, Science Center of Iowa, new downtown library and Pappajohn Higher Eduction Center.

—David Elbert

Rain Forest History

Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend first pitched the idea of a man-made rain forest to Des Moines leaders in 1997. The project was originally called the Iowa CHILD Project — an acronym for Center for Health in a Loving Democracy. Today, it is called the Iowa Environmental Project.

Townsend is the only son of entrepreneur Ray Townsend, who founded and built Townsend Engineering into a 200-employee manufacturer of meat-processing equipment. Stork Food Systems, a Dutch company, said last year it would buy Townsend Engineering for an undisclosed amount.

The original proposal was for a $330 million project that would be built on 10 acres of land south of Locust Street, in roughly the area where Allied Insurance's headquarters building is today. The plan called for a 20-story, dome-covered rain forest, a major aquarium, an IMAX theater, a 600-room hotel, an elementary school, office tower and parking ramp.

In 1999, as support in Des Moines was fading, Cedar Rapids embraced a $280 million version of the project.

In 2001, support in Cedar Rapids was fading and Coralville became the preferred site. That's also when David Oman signed on to help Townsend push the plan.

Oman was well regarded by Republicans and Democrats. He had been a top aide to Gov. Robert Ray in the early 1980s and had unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1998. Democrat Tom Vilsack, who won the election, tapped Oman in 1999 to co-chair a strategic planning group.

With Oman, Ray and other prominent Republicans backing the rain forest, Sen. Charles Grassley won a hard-fought $50 million of federal money for the project in 2003.

Coralville provided public money to develop a 22-acre site for the rain forest, but last fall Coralville officials cited a lack of progress and pulled the plug on the project.

When Coralville dropped out, Oman and Townsend said other cities — including Des Moines, Grinnell and Dubuque — had expressed interest in the project and that another site would be selected.