Editorial: Listen to younger Iowans

By Register Editorial Board


They like the rain forest project.

There are good reasons other Iowans should, too.

Amajority of Iowans have trouble envisioning what the proposed Iowa Environmental and Education Project in Coralville - better known as the rain forest - could mean to the state. The exception to this thinking? In a recent Register Iowa Poll, more than half of Iowans 18 to 34 considered the project a good idea. Maybe it's time to listen to this fresher generation for some guidance about the future of the state.

Because Iowa needs more big thinking.

This rain forest is big thinking.

It will be a 4.5-acre, caterpillar-like enclosure that's 20 stories high and filled with plants, animals, a million-gallon aquarium, wetlands and prairies. It could be this state's signature attraction, something Iowa lacks. Missouri has the Gateway Arch. South Dakota has Mount Rushmore. Wisconsin has the Dells. Iowa could have a rain forest in the way Cornwall, England, has the The Eden Project. That attraction, called the largest greenhouse in the world, draws 1.8 million visitors a year. Iowa's rain forest dome would be even bigger.

Funding for the project is growing. Thanks to Senator Chuck Grassley, the rain forest will receive $50 million in federal dollars. Iowan Ted Townsend has donated $10 million of his own money and other sources have brought the amount raised to half the cost of the $180 million project. Discussions are under way about securing state Vision Iowa assistance, but the Legislature needs to replenish that fantastically successful but near-empty fund.

Yet most Iowans polled are still reluctant about spending the dollars on this project. "It just seems to me our schools are hurting and we need money so many other places that it's kind of over the top right now. It's maybe a terrific idea for the future," said poll participant Marilyn Konicek of Belle Plaine.

Granted, it's hard to think about investing in the future when the state is barely staying financially afloat today. But now is exactly the time to look ahead. Interest rates are low. Iowa will recover from these difficult financial times and this state will be glad it had the foresight to invest in a quality-of-life endeavor that attracts tourists and adds entertainment.

When that happens, everyone wins because Iowa is a more interesting place to live and economic development is spurred.

Already, Coralville is in the early stages of building a $60 million hotel and convention center near the rain forest site. Just inside the dome, 300 to 400 jobs will be created. It's estimated the rain forest will generate $120 million to $130 million for the state each year. Marketing surveys show workers and employers rank "quality of life" high among reasons to locate in a place, and Iowa could use some help.

Iowa is a great place to live with good, common-sense people. Yet sometimes what's lacking in this state is a bigger vision - a vision that enthusiastically supports cultural and recreational projects. Those are investments that will make Iowa a better place to live for many years to come.