Reversing Iowa Stagnation


The Gazette

December 23, 2004

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, 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 Gazette.]

    STORIES ABOUT Iowaís stagnant population and the anticipated groundbreaking of the rain forest project in Coralville were published on the front page of Wednesdayís Gazette. Optimists might pair the stories, reading the first as a significant state problem and the second as at least part of a solution. Skeptics will grumble that the rain forest, now called The Environmental Project, makes even less sense if Iowa isnít a growth region.

    The Environmental Project is the boldest idea proposed in Iowa in decades. Are there risks? Sure. After years of fund raising, enough money still hasnít been raised to cover the estimated $180 million construction cost. And even once itís built, itís going to take a lot of visitors to make the facility self-sufficient.

    But is it time to take a risk in Iowa? Even with all kinds of attention paid in recent years to business creation, work-force recruitment and simply bringing more people to Iowa, the state ranks 47th in the nation in growth since 2000.

    Certainly, population is not the sole indicator of economic activity or prosperity. But if a state is not growing, itís a pretty darned good signal its future is bleak. Why wonít more people come to Iowa? Why isnít there more interest in this place that so many native Iowans love? How can the state reverse its dismal growth record?

    The Environmental Project wonít magically solve Iowaís growth problem. But it can play a significant role on several fronts.

    Iowa has a reputation problem. What do most Americans know about Iowa other than hogs and the first-in-the-nation caucuses? Perhaps a rain forest in Iowa sounds crazy, but not any more so than a presidentís likeness carved into a stone cliff or a steel arch towering over a Mississippi River town. Having a unique attraction on a grand scale would give tourists a better reason to come to Iowa, and it would leave people with a more positive perception of the state.

    The Environmental Project would create hundreds of good jobs. Iowans would be cheering and legislators working overtime to create incentives if a traditional company were promising the same.

    The project builds on the strengths of Iowa, particularly its reputation for educational excellence. Having a world-class education facility would do much to promote the state as a great place for families to raise their children. The rain forest would make for a field trip that no child would ever forget, and the research facility would have potential to attract national and international acclaim.

    Iowa can play it conservatively, shun new projects and unique approaches to economic development. But with that approach, expect the same 3 million of us to be looking at one another in a decade wondering why the tax base hasnít grown, why investment and prosperity is fleeing to other states and why we rank at the bottom of population charts.

    For our money, we like the risk and potential reward of The Environmental Project.