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Leave Rain Forests to the Tropics

Editorial Board

Daily Iowan

September 2, 2005

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

As far as ridicule goes, an indoor rain forest in eastern Iowa has proven an inviting target, drawing denunciations and jibes from a variety of sources (this page included), including its hosts in the city of Coralville. City councilors may yet opt to stick with the Iowa Environmental Project - a plan to build a 4.5-acre indoor tropical rain forest, 1 million-gallon aquarium plus a theater and educational facility - but we hope they will finally opt to reverse course before the beleaguered proposal ceases to be funny.

In one sense, the group's Wednesday selection of Grimshaw Architects to oversee the rain forest construction places the project in competent hands: Grimshaw was also in charge of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, a spectacular series of biodomes that encloses tropical climates and is a model for the Coralville project. Yet while project developers understandably feel that the choice has brought the project one step closer to delivering its dream of the dome, increasingly, that dream seems to be doomed for disaster.

To our minds, the developmental costs of this project do not outweigh the likely benefits. Estimates predict a $180 million price tag for the construction of the dome alone, and despite $50 million in federal funds, delivered thanks to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the project has so far had difficulty clearing the $90 million mark. (The $180 million figure is only an estimate - actual costs are almost always higher.) To say nothing of the land that can't be used for other developments - regardless of our personal feelings on the woes of Dolls, the "gentlemen's club" that found its desired property swallowed up by the project, that establishment had a rather more sound business plan.

Moreover, the project's location just doesn't seem right. Coralville, Iowa? A tropical forest surrounded by cornfields? Even ignoring the joke potential, logistics are a serious concern. The Eden Project was built in an already flourishing tourist area and a warmer climate; in Coralville's case, just imagine the energy bill of a tropical biodome while the air outside is 20 below zero. Worse, the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., already features the 1.5-acre Lied Jungle - not quite the same sort of facility, we admit, but how many indoor rain forests can a single region support?

Promoters of the Coralville rain forest argue that the immense tourist attraction will draw not only Iowans but out-of-staters to the site, thanks to the 30,000 square-foot convention center planned to neighbor the dome. They had best hope so - visitor projections are estimated at more than 1 million per year, nearly a third the population of Iowa. And will organizations from out of state really sit down at their meetings and decide that eastern Iowa is the happening place to be?

Conferences held in this area are already well-accommodated by the UI and Iowa City - and with the nearest major airport (if you can call it that) almost a half hour away in Cedar Rapids. Larger conferences will not warm to the Coralville location when they could take place in metropolitan areas, where numerous prominent attractions lay, not simply one. Unless you would consider Coral Ridge Mall a tourist attraction.

And what about the rain forest's educational benefits? Indeed, a field trip to the tropical rain forest is an atypical and adventurous excursion for Iowa's younger students. But with all the shortages in educational funding, perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in this educational endeavor could be better spent if invested directly in Iowa's educational facilities: public schools.

With Wal-Mart moving through our city and leaving vast, empty boxes in its wake, we can understand the appeal of a preserved bit of nature. Yet, despite its infusion of pork-barrel largesse and the host city's willingness to let no exotic dancers get in its way, the Iowa Environmental Project will do very little for Coralville and for Iowa when the vast amounts of money being spent are taken into consideration. Imagine the ridicule should Coralville find itself with an abandoned 4.5-acre glass dome to find a use for.