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For a secret to growth, look outdoors
By Register Editorial Board
Des Moines Register
April 4, 2004
rain forest project builds up steam:
The attraction is winning converts but needs cash to succeed.
[with "A range of views"]
Jennifer Dukes Lee, Register Staff Writer
Des Moines Sunday Register
April 11, 2004, p. 1
homes make way for project:
Coralville has spent $15 million buying land for the Iowa rain forest.
Perry Beeman, Register Staff Writer
Des Moines Sunday Register
April 11, 2004
That might be the response to a new study that found Iowans who live in counties with more outdoor recreation opportunities enjoy faster-rising incomes than those who don't, and counties with more outdoor amenities have stronger economic growth.
Advocates for trails and parks have argued for years that enhancing outdoor recreation must be a part of any sensible economic-growth strategy. Recreation attractions not only generate immediate economic activity - the Mississippi River Trail is estimated to add $20 million to the state's economy each year, for instance - they also aid long-term growth by being a magnet for new residents and businesses. Where there are outdoor activities, businesses start up and thrive.
The study may confirm what was already known, but it's good to have further evidence. Recreation in Iowa could use all the help it can get.
Doug Gross, a Des Moines attorney and former gubernatorial candidate, used leftover campaign funds, supplemented by Musco Lighting, to pay for the study conducted by Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. Gross said the findings show great potential for southern Iowa and other rural areas of the state. He said Iowa hasn't sufficiently explored these opportunities.
That's for sure.
This state ranks 48th in the country for spending on environmental and natural resource endeavors, according to the Environmental Council of States. When budgets are tight, the outdoors is one of the first areas to be cut. Between 2000 and 2003, Iowa lawmakers slashed conservation spending by 42 percent. They took $5 million from the State Recreational Trails Fund, leaving some outdoor projects hanging and no money for new projects. Funding was increased last year, but it's still far from adequate.
Last year, Iowa spent 1.3 percent of the state budget on conservation, environmental endeavors and recreation. Other states average about 2 percent, which has spurred some Iowa environmental advocates to push a "2-cent campaign" that asks lawmakers to commit to allocating 2 cents of each general-revenue dollar to the outdoors.
"Two cents wouldn't put us on top, but it would pull us out from being at the bottom," said Rich Leopold, director of the Iowa Environmental Council. "This is definitely what people want. Overwhelmingly, surveys show people are willing to pay for conservation and clean water."
It is what Iowans want. It makes sense.
Everyone who lives in Iowa knows green space, recreational trails, camping spots, hunting opportunities, fishing and boating spots make this state a better place to live.
More than 1 million Iowans use the trails in Iowa each year. Part of having a good life is living in a place a family can take a picnic to a park where the grass is mowed. It's taking the kids on a traffic-free bike ride down a winding path. It's dusting off the binoculars and watching birds in the spring. It's having clean lakes to swim in on a hot summer day.
Yet this quality-of-life message hasn't resonated with lawmakers. Some wrongly equate "environmental spending" with throwing dollars away. That's why the latest study, which is more comprehensive and funded by a prominent conservative, should get their attention.
It's a reminder that funding the outdoors stimulates the economy. It's a major way for Iowa to grow, become a healthier state, attract tourists, bring new business, spur small business and make this an enticing place to move to.
Next to maintaining first-rate public schools, enhancing outdoor recreation may be the most important thing Iowa can do to stimulate economic growth.
But Iowa has to invest.
One way to do this is to follow the lead of our neighbors in Missouri. In 1984, residents decided they cared about the crumbling parks and state monuments enough to vote to approve a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax dedicated to conservation and parks.
Twice since then, residents voted to continue this tax. It has generated millions that have been spent to repair landmarks, build rental cabins, expand bike trails and maintain parks.
In addition, Missouri dedicates one-eighth of 1 percent of sales-tax money for natural resources. It has allowed the state to purchase thousands of acres of land for wildlife preserves and green space.
That's dedication. And it pays off. The investment repays the state in economic growth while making it a better place to live.
What Missouri has "would be utopia, a dream," for Iowa, says Leopold.
Almost like, well, heaven.
Or just a better Iowa.
The people planning to build an indoor tropical rain forest in Iowa promise big things:
* A colossal complex that would supplant the Iowa State Fair as the state's biggest tourist attraction.
* A sophisticated marketing campaign pinpointing national television networks and Hollywood celebrities to promote the project.
* A massive fund-raising effort targeting Fortune 50 companies and the ultra-wealthy, including billionaire investor Warren Buffett of Nebraska.
"This is completely aimed at being a national, if not global, attraction," said David Oman, chief administrator of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project - better known as Iowa's rain forest. "This is being positioned to be our Gateway Arch, our Seattle Space Needle, our Sydney Opera House."
Iowans, he said, must think big. Bigger than anything they've ever imagined for their state.
Giant-size hurdles, however, continue to cast shadows on this giant-size dream.
The attraction, a 200-foot-tall complex proposed for Coralville, is still $90 million short of its $180 million fund-raising goal. Vision Iowa, a state tourism-grant program once considered a key financial prospect for the rain forest, now seems an unlikely backer because the fund is nearly depleted.
Still, project supporters insist they can break ground by year's end. They say doubters ought to look at what's happened in the past three months alone:
In January, the project won $50 million in federal assistance. In March, a new study showed the tourist attraction could create 2,900 new jobs and give the state a $187 million economic kick each year.
New momentum has turned skeptics into supporters.
Michael Blouin, the state's economic development director, is among the converts.
"When this idea was first being floated, I thought it was kind of silly," Blouin said. First suggested in Des Moines, the project found little support. It bounced off Cedar Rapids leaders, too, before finding a home in Coralville.
Blouin's attitude changed in February, after he visited the Eden Project - a rain forest complex in Cornwall, England, regarded as the closest example to what's planned for Iowa.
"I went there somewhat as a skeptic of this whole thing," Blouin said of his trip. "I came out a believer."
Blouin and others do wonder how anyone can pull this off by 2008 - the targeted opening - without financial support from Vision Iowa.
"It would be very, very hard without that money. Very hard," said Blouin, a member of the board that decides which tourism projects will receive financial help from Vision Iowa. "I don't see how they can make ends meet."
About $14 million remains in the Vision Iowa fund.
Michael Gartner, Vision Iowa board chairman, thinks the money will go to one or two other projects that already have applied for financial help. Rain forest backers had not yet sought money from Vision Iowa, and now hold out hope that state legislators will replenish the fund.
Gartner is doubtful.
"We'll be out of business, unless the Legislature has a dramatic turnaround," he said of Vision Iowa.
Without the state's help, Oman said, project organizers simply must look harder for money elsewhere. He said they are making progress by taking their case to "high net-worth individuals" and foundations nationwide.
The fund-raising push has unfolded in places such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, New York and Chicago, Oman said. A "trusted intermediary," he added, has contacted Buffett. Efforts by The Des Moines Register to reach Buffett last week were unsuccessful.
Project leaders also have approached Hollywood celebrities - from actors to musicians to producers - who share an interest in environmental causes. They don't provide names.
Consultants have talked with officials at the Discovery Channel and National Geographic about televising regular educational programs from the complex, said John Picard, a Los Angeles environmental consultant for the project.
"There has been a very warm reception, and doubly so because it's in Iowa," Oman said.
The turning point came in January, when U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa helped nail down federal money for the rain forest. Before the federal appropriation, the project was foundering.
"Through much of 2002, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the serious question was, 'Could this be done?" " Oman said.
The federal appropriation made Iowa the butt of national pork-barrel jokes, but project backers may have the last laugh.
The money "gave the project credibility, visibility and a platform on which we can go forward, knowing that there is a base of financial support," said former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, board chairman for the project. "It makes a huge difference."
So far, however, no new donors have stepped forward.
Project founder Ted Townsend, a Des Moines businessman, had already pledged $10 million. Also in hand: a letter of intent from an unnamed out-of-state energy company for a $10 million in-kind contribution.
The city of Coralville is giving about $20 million in land and other contributions.
Oman and other supporters are undaunted by the task that remains.
"We're on the 50-yard line, headed toward the red zone," Oman said.
He pointed out that the rain forest roster includes consultants and designers from both coasts, a Boston architect who has worked on aquariums around the globe and an environmentalist who helped with the "Greening of the White House" project.
Well-known Iowans have endorsed the project, too. Among the board members: University of Iowa President David Skorton, former state Auditor Richard Johnson and former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice W. Ward Reynoldson.
"These are people who do not have a habit of supporting bad ideas," said Oman, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1998.
If project leaders can translate their enthusiasm into money, a gigantic translucent dome will begin to emerge next year on a 30-acre site near Interstate Highway 80.
"We're doing things that, frankly, very few people have ever seen," said Boston architect Peter Sollogub.
When completed, the building would be 300 feet wide, 900 feet long and rise 20 stories high. Its exterior skin would be capable of changing hues depending on air and solar conditions.
Visitors could stroll along treetop walkways suspended 100 feet in the air. They would see squirrel monkeys, scarlet macaws and other animals while weaving their way down through American mahogany and ice cream bean trees. At the forest floor, they could view ponds, a river, waterfalls and a 1 million-gallon aquarium.
Visitors could venture "underground," with tree roots dangling overhead, and check out interactive galleries on the Iowa prairie, geology and agriculture. The attraction would include classrooms, computers and laboratories.
The rain forest's behind-the-scenes machinery is being billed as an attraction all its own. A combination of alternative energy sources, including wind and fuel cells, would power the complex.
A study commissioned by project leaders predicted the complex would draw 1.3 million visitors annually, making it the largest tourist attraction in Iowa.
The study identified about 55 percent of the rain forest's projected visitors as "high-spending overnight travelers" who would make the trip from outside the state.
Project supporters are banking on their belief that thousands of travelers, awed by the roadside spectacle, will be lured inside even if they didn't have plans to stop.
With 50,000 cars passing the rain forest each day, Ray said the attraction is destined to succeed.
"This is a signature project," Ray said. "If those people stop to see it, they will be impressed, they will spend money here, and they will remember Iowa. That's good for all of us."
A range of views
"I thought this was a dead project. It was too stupid to live. You could send every kid in Iowa to a real rain forest for the money they're spending on this thing."
- Michelle Nagle, Coralville, unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 2003
"You have to give David Oman a huge amount of credit for his doggedness and his kind of vision in this whole thing. I think Vision Iowa would consider it a real project now, but that's academic, because I don't think they (legislators) are going to renew Vision Iowa."
- Michael Gartner, Vision Iowa board chairman
"I think it's a darn good investment, but my concern is that we haven't seen the private donors. We have to show a private match to move this thing along."
- State Rep. David Jacoby, D-Coralville
"This will be an economic boost to the entire state, not just our community, and it can be a signature attraction to bring in international tourism."
- Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett
Coralville, Ia. - While backers continue to piece together financing for the rain forest, Coralville has plans for the aging industrial park surrounding the development.
The city already has landed a Marriott Hotel and conference center, to be located next to the river, east of the rain forest enclosure. There is talk of a tourist train running among Cedar Rapids, Coralville and the Amana Colonies. A pedestrian bridge is under construction between the Iowa River Power Co. Restaurant and a 150-acre park. Plans call for a historical gazebo on the Coralville side of the river, where the town started with mills.
The city already has bought many businesses in the aging industrial park that would be home to the rain forest, said City Administrator Kelly Hayworth. The businesses in the rain forest area have until the end of the year to get out.
The campground next to the river will go, too. A string of houses may stay, although the city is buying them from willing sellers to improve the river view, Hayworth said.
Tour the rain forest site and it becomes clear that the commercial area is a bit rundown but doing plenty of business. Truck traffic was steady one recent Tuesday morning, making deliveries to the car repair and tire shop, motorcycle dealer and mechanical contractors.
The park is home to Trebron Inc. Custom Building, Coralville Frame and Axle, Bud's Tire and Repair Service Inc., and Mid-Iowa Equipment, for example.
On tour day, a couple of cars were parked outside of Dolls Inc., a strip club. A dancer who lives in a commercial building down the hill from the club wondered what Hayworth was doing parked on the street as he looked at the development site. "You know all this is going, right?" she asked.
Hayworth knows. The city has spent $15 million from a special tax-district account to buy the land for the rain forest, and it plans to buy more.
The city administrator pointed to stakes in the ground that mark the east and west ends of the snake-shaped rain forest enclosure. A radio antenna towers over the site, 150 feet tall and at the top of a hill. The rain forest's Teflon-foil exterior would be nearly 50 feet taller and easily visible from next-door Interstate Highway 80.
What's there will be gone.