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Amazon Meets Iowa

Iowa's newest attraction would be one-of-a-kind, but comparisons to other projects raise attendance questions.


Des Moines Register

September 19, 2004, p. 1A
[URL, as of September 19,]

And see the related, Erin Jordan, "U of I Scientists Take Interest in Rain Forest," and "Coralville Residents Split Over Rain Forest," Des Moines Register, September 19, 2004, p. 9A.

[URLs, as of September 19, and]

[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 commercial use requires the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Audacious in size, the indoor rain forest planned in Coralville would be the biggest in the world, backers say.

Visitors could stroll on suspended wooden bridges 100 feet in the air, through the tops of hundreds of towering Brazilian beautyleaf and American mahogany trees. The 20-story enclosure would look like a giant foil-covered caterpillar to motorists next door on Interstate Highway 80.

Children would learn, researchers would study and tourists would roam through prairie, rain forest, an aquarium, an amphitheater or an IMAX-style theater in a kind of prairie-meets-the-Amazon setting.

That is, of course, if backers can raise the remaining $90 million for the $180 million project and if the Iowa Environmental Project can attract the 1.1 million visitors a year that it needs to pay for itself.


How it could look: This artist's rendering
of the rain forest was prepared by designer
consultants for the Iowa Environmental Project.


The planned rain forest at Coralville has created quite a buzz about the project's size - 20 stories tall and billed as the largest man-made rain forest in the world.

The size of the attraction's attendance projections - 1.3 million to 1.5 million visitors per year - has created a bit of a buzz, too, especially since developers say they will need 1.1 million visitors annually to break even. Are those estimates realistic?

The number of visitors would rival or exceed attendance at:

Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, nationally known for its tiger collection, indoor rain forest, aquarium and "Desert Dome."

Eden Project in Cornwall, England, which features a huge indoor rain forest that inspired the Coralville project.

Washington Monument, one of the tourist icons in Washington, D.C.

Consultants say the project can attract up to 1.5 million visitors annually. But other experts are skeptical of those projections.

"That's a big number for the Midwest," said Terry Gaouette, chief operating officer for the Milwaukee Public Museum, which has a smaller rain forest and draws 1.1 million visitors a year in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million people.

David Oman, project administrator for the Iowa Environmental Project, the official name for the rain forest, is not worried.

"There are not a lot of museums that do more than 1 million a year," he said.

"Iowans are not into hyperbole and sensationalism," Oman said, "but this facility has the potential to be Iowa's Gateway Arch or Space Needle or Sydney Opera House."

If it succeeds, the project is expected to pump $187 million a year into the area's economy around Coralville and create a defining tourism destination for the state, something consultants say Iowa does not have.

If it fails, organizers are not saying what might happen to the giant complex that is being planned. Although U.S. taxpayers are providing a $50 million federal energy grant for the project, no local governments are underwriting the project's costs.

The rain forest's financial forecast by ConsultEcon Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., is the third study to say the complex would be able to draw between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people per year, Oman said.

"That confirms to me we have good numbers and might even have conservative numbers," he said. "These are reputable national firms whose livelihood depends on being right. If they miss, they wouldn't be around long."

ConsultEcon has a sound track record on other projects, including the new National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, he said. The consultants are staking their reputations that the Coralville attraction will be so eye-grabbing on an interstate highway known mostly for truck stops that travelers will stop.

Jerry Enzler, executive director of the Dubuque river museum, said ConsultEcon predicted his museum, which opened in June 2003, would bring in between 230,000 and 309,000 visitors in its first year. The museum had 300,750 visitors.

"They have a reputation of being a conservative and prudent estimator of attendance," said Enzler, who plans to hire the firm again this fall to study a major expansion.

ConsultEcon estimates that Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend's Coralville idea, which is projected to open in late 2008, is most likely to attract 1.3 million visitors per year.

On its busiest days, the rain forest complex would attract up to 4,900 people, according to the consultants' report.

To put that in some perspective, last year the Louvre, the famed Paris art museum, displayed Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces in a special exhibition and drew 5,511 visitors on average days. In a typical year, the Louvre's overall annual attendance is 6 million people - four times what the Iowa facility expects.

The consultants also expect the new Coralville complex to pull as many, or more, visitors than the long-established Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, which has a smaller rain forest, an IMAX theater, an aquarium and a "Desert Dome" in a traditional zoo setting, and is in a much larger metropolitan area.

Oman said the Coralville project's supporters are banking that it will draw visitors from more populous surrounding states and will lure motorists off the nearby interstate highway. That's because Iowa's entire population is less than 3 million, and only about 110,000 people live in the Iowa City-Coralville area.

ConsultEcon expects the Coralville complex to draw as many visitors as the Eden Project, an indoor rain forest built in Cornwall, England, which was one of that nation's millennium projects. The Cornwall facility draws 1.4 million visitors a year and was something of an inspiration for the Iowa project.

But Oman said, "They don't have an interstate highway, and we do."

The Des Moines Sunday Register compared the ConsultEcon consultants' projections for the Coralville complex to attendance figures at other facilities and found that it would attract as many visitors as - or more than - the Milwaukee Public Museum, which includes a smaller rain forest and is in a metro area of 1.5 million people; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland; the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn.; the Montreal Biodome in Canada; and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which is located in a metropolitan area of 2.9 million - about the same population as the entire state of Iowa.

National Park Service attendance figures for some of the nation's best-known attractions show that the Coralville rain forest's visitor numbers would be more than double the Washington Monument's in the nation's capital, which had 540,800 visitors last year. However, the rain forest's 1.3 million visitors per year would trail the 2.9 million visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park last year and the 2.2 million guests last year at Mount Rushmore.

In Iowa, the nearby Amana Colonies claim to draw 1 million a year, although that is based on a chamber-of-commerce guess, not a firm economic analysis. Coral Ridge Mall, just a couple of miles down I-80 from the proposed site for the Coralville rain forest, lures 10 million guests a year.

By comparison, the new Science Center of Iowa now under construction in Des Moines, Iowa's largest city, would draw one-fifth of what the forecasters expect at Coralville, according to Science Center consultants.

Keith James, president of Jack Rouse Associates, a Cincinnati-based firm that designs theme parks and other tourist attractions, formerly was vice president of Universal Studios Florida. He wonders if Iowa's attraction is aiming high, even for a 20-story-tall enclosure that would be visible far down I-80.

"That would be high for a zoo or natural experience anywhere," James said of the million-plus attendance projection. "They may be setting themselves up for a disappointment."
Looking ahead

Industry officials say that attendance typically drops sharply at attractions if they do not expand or add new features frequently. David Oman, administrator of the Iowa Environmental Project, said his team has been busy raising money for the original construction and has not decided on the next stages. Plans call for an expansion five years after the planned 2008 opening. Oman added that backers want to raise an endowment to pay for new exhibits. Various elements could be shuffled within the rainforest to give it a new look, he added.

Oman pointed out that ConsultEcon worked on the Eden Project in England, which has 1.4 million visitors per year after a 1.7 million boom its opening year. The same consultants also worked on the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and the National Aquarium in Baltimore. All three have exceeded ConsultEcon's attendance projections.

The latest 70-page analysis considers regional population, traffic counts, the experience of attractions in Iowa and elsewhere, admission prices for various facilities, and other economics.

An average adult ticket to the Iowa Environmental Project would cost $14.50, based on the value of the dollar today, with a separate charge for the IMAX-like theater. Including all ages, the average rain forest ticket would cost $10 or so.

The complex is expected to pump $187 million a year into the region's economy, with 300 permanent jobs at the facility and 2,500 positions at other businesses. Some 500 people would work on the construction of the facility.

What if the experts are wrong?

Oman is not saying. He avoided answering questions about what would be done with the facility - and whether taxpayers would pay the deficits - should the rain forest fail to draw the 1.1 million annual visitors needed to break even.

He suggested that it is a virtual certainty the Coralville project will succeed.

"We are proceeding with confidence in the power and potential of this project," based on the success of other projects designed by the architects and economists on board, Oman said. "The board and management would have to deal with business challenges if or when they arise."

Unlike many public projects, such as the Prairie Meadows horse track in Altoona, the private, nonprofit rain forest organization is not using bonds backed by taxpayers to pay for construction. However, the federal government is providing a $50 million grant for the project, and Coralville is spending $15 million for land for the complex.

Critic Eileen Robb wrote in a letter to The Des Moines Register as the project unfolded: "Perhaps the best that Iowans can hope for is that it will be purchased for pennies on the dollar in the future and put to a rational economic use, as happened in March 2003 to Colorado's Ocean Journey. The bankrupt $93 million Denver aquarium was recently purchased for just $13.6 million by Landry's seafood restaurant chain. Folks in Denver will now be able to watch their fish and eat them, too."

James, the Cincinnati theme-park designer, said the Iowa Environmental Project's biggest challenge will be getting motorists on I-80 to stop and visit the rain forest.

"You're pretty well banking on a lot of people getting off the freeway," he said. "In general, those people are going somewhere else."

ConsultEcon acknowledged that in its analysis: "Although the Iowa Environmental Project will primarily be a destination attraction, with proper marketing it could receive visits from travelers driving on I-80 or I-380 en route to other destinations."

The consultants found that nearly a third of travelers in Iowa shop, 10 percent do outdoor activities, and 9 percent go to museums or historical places. Most travelers, 57 percent, come to Iowa to visit relatives and friends. Only 10 percent come for entertainment.

The consultants said that means the state lacks a true major attraction - natural or man-made - and needs one.

If tourists, students, researchers and event planners all seek out the rain forest, it could be very successful, James said.

"The layering of this to a variety of different audiences will be critical," he said. "It needs to be a place that everyone must go."

Backers are planning just that. To make sure the architecture itself is a draw, they have hired international architect Peter Sollogub, who has designed museums and aquariums in Osaka, Japan, and Lisbon, Portugal, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The project has already gotten national press attention, although not necessarily positive publicity. Columnists, including Dave Barry, and some politicians have taken potshots at the Iowa Environmental Project, calling it a pork-barrel project because of the $50 million in federal aid arranged by Sen. Tom Harkin and Sen. Charles Grassley.

Townsend, the chief backer of the project, contends the world's biggest indoor rain forest with an aquarium, large-format theater, four academies, and other exhibits is something that would easily pull people off I-80, which carries as many as 45,000 vehicles a day.

Consultants expect about half of the annual visitors to come from outside the main market, which includes parts of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri.

Gaouette, the Milwaukee museum official, said long-term attendance fluctuates depending on new exhibits and features.

"You have to keep wowing them with something new and different," he said. "It's almost like we're a circus."

Milwaukee's $3.5 million Puelicher Butterfly Wing caused an attendance spike after it was opened in 2000, but the flurry has faded, he said.

Admission costs affect attendance, too, and free facilities' attendance is often higher. The St. Louis Zoo, which has free admission, draws 3 million visitors a year. But the Gateway Arch, St. Louis' icon, charges $12 for a tram ride and movie and pulls in 4.1 million people a year.

Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame draws 475,000 people annually - far fewer than the Coralville rain forest expects - but the Cleveland museum charges $20 for an adult admission.

Those attractions don't offer the same mix that the Coralville complex would. But how many people would actually smell the tropical scents of Iowa's rain forest is still a $180 million question. 

Learn about it
Do you want to know more about the planned rain forest in Coralville? Go to:

Science, engineering professors take an interest in rain forest


Des Moines Register

September 19, 2004, p. 9A

Coralville, Ia. - University of Iowa faculty on board with the Iowa Environmental Project say the indoor rain forest will yield ground-breaking research of water quality, alternative energy systems and children's learning patterns.

The research connection between the university and the rain forest project, which is predicted to become a one-of-a-kind learning center and attraction, could bring in $5 million in grant money each year to benefit the university and the project, faculty and U of I administrators said.

"It's quite possible, if the environmental scientists get fully engaged, to reach numbers like that," said Bill Decker, the U of I vice president for research.

No research deals have been struck so far, however, and many faculty members remain unconvinced that the $180 million project is a good fit for the community or for university.

"I don't think anyone knows very much about the science," said Gary Gussin, a U of I professor of biological sciences. "It seems like a gimmick."

Consultants for the project predict it will draw between 1.3 million and 1.5 million people a year. The complex would include a 3.5-acre indoor tropical rain forest, 1.2 million-gallon aquarium, outdoor amphitheater and re-created wetland and prairie. Learning opportunities would be available to Iowa schools through a connection to the Iowa Communications Network.

Project administrator David Oman said a team of scientists will set the research goals for the rain forest and will work with university researchers inside and outside of Iowa.

U of I engineering, geoscience and science education professors are keenest to work with the project. Earlier this summer, about 30 U of I professors, most in engineering, helped brainstorm ideas for research or other university interaction. Topping the list were studies of global warming and alternative energy systems, as well as internships for U of I students.

"For us to have it sitting in our back yard is ideal," said Barry Butler, dean of the U of I College of Engineering.

The biggest attractions of the indoor rain forest - hundreds of plant species - are of little use to the U of I. The university has only a handful of ecologists and botanists left on the faculty after a decade-long shift to more profitable studies of plant genetics.

"While there seems to be a potential there with people who deal with biology, in fact, there are few, if any, faculty left in that area," said Jeffry Schabilion, a professor of biological sciences.

Other U of I faculty, even those who support the project, have some concerns, including the project's cost, its energy consumption, and how animals could complicate an already-ambitious project.

"I think it's a waste of money," said Gussin, the biological sciences professor.

Robert Yager, a U of I professor of science education and member of the Coralville project's educational design team, said he has reservations about animals being a part of the facility because they would require a great deal of planning and more staff for their care.

"I'm afraid they would be there for the tourist purpose only," he said. "I'm not sure it's been thought through."

Still, Yager said the benefits of studying how children learn and training science teachers in the rain forest outweigh his concerns.

Coralville residents split over rain forest


Des Moines Register

September 19, 2004, p. 9A

Some of the people you would expect to benefit most from the Coralville rain forest - construction workers, teachers and travelers - are divided over how much of a draw the project would be.

Doug Cannon, a construction worker from Iowa City, said he does not know how much the local economy will benefit from the project.

"It would be a small shot in the arm, but most of the big developers bring in their own crews," he said.

Cannon, who is involved in theatrical work, would rather see a new performing arts venue. "That would give more jobs," he said.

Carole Ramsey of Iowa City is ambivalent about the rain forest. "We'd probably take the grandkids," she said.

On the other hand, "If it didn't happen, that would be fine, too."

If all visitors to Iowa think like Luisa Cimmino and Alex Banks, graduate students at Columbia University in New York City, the rain forest will be a big success.

"We were driving across the country and looking for anything to break up the monotony," Banks said.

En route to Iowa City to help a colleague move to the University of Iowa, they stopped at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland just because it was near the highway, he said. The rain forest could provide the same kind of break for travelers, he said. "It's not necessarily a destination unto itself, but if you're passing by."

Donald Ferrone, president of Chicago Gray Line tour company, said whether Chicagoans visit the Iowa rain forest will depend on how well it is promoted and what it has inside.

"You could have a lot of naturalists that would think it was fantastic," he said. "To me, going on I-80, the sheer oddity of it would drive me to go over there."

But if the rain forest does not add new exhibits or programs, its appeal could quickly wear off. "They need to have something to keep people coming back," Ferrone said.

Coralville science teacher Dan Mascal said he did not want to talk about the rain forest project, which has been controversial in the community. "It's a real hot potato," he said.