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Rain Forest Questions Remain
Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion
February 16, 2004
p. 11A

Is the "Iowa Child" rain forest financially viable?

Asking the question isn't "opposition." It's common sense.

Iowa Child's benefits must be balanced against costs, including "opportunity costs." What else might we get with a $180 million-$300 million investment (such as $10 million interest a year forever)? What's the net gain after the profits, taxes and jobs lost by closing businesses on that land, and the drain from Coralville's remaining businesses?

What economists and appraisers tell me, and a quick Internet search confirms, is a nationwide experience of overly optimistic projections followed by disappointment. Community "tourist attractions" -- Olympic sites, aquariums and botanical gardens -- open on fleecy clouds of confidence only to fall into seas of red ink.

Why are donors of facilities, such as art museums or English estates, often asked to provide endowments as well? Because even "free" facilities incur upkeep and operating expenses.

You may think an Iowa rain forest so loony it fails the laugh test. But if it attracts enough tourists and dollars to pay the bills and provide high-paying jobs -- and a long list of objections and questions can be resolved -- who cares?

Show us the numbers

You should care. What if it can't pay the bills? It becomes a mighty big monument to failure along Interstate 80. And it'll be a very expensive failure. The public already is providing most of the construction costs with federal and state income taxes, and property taxes shifted to homeowners. Will we subsidize operating costs, too?

Its initial novelty may attract visitors. But what are the best and worst case scenarios for attendance in five or 10 years? Promoters predict from 1 million to 2 million visitors a year. Is that realistic?

The answer requires independent, detailed hard data. I've been asking for it, and repeatedly refused, for three years now. Boosters only offer constantly shifting slick hype, unsupported self-serving assertions and a roster of supporters -- as if names were a substitute for numbers.

"Build it and they will come" only works in the movies. Remember our laser center? The new Hawkeyes' Hall of Fame? Check out financials for Des Moines' Science Center, Botanical Garden or Davenport's IMAX theater. Even fiction, from "Music Man" to a small town's monorail in "The Simpsons," recognizes a pitch man.

There are reasons this eight-year-old Iowa Child has yet to walk -- in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids or Iowa City.

Urban centers are destinations. That boosts their attractions' attendance. I've watched 60 years of Coralville's growth. But it's not yet a national destination to rival the areas around Washington-Baltimore or the San Francisco Bay.

Iowa Child plans an aquarium. Chancy anywhere, they're most popular near oceans. We're not. And even Baltimore's now faces difficulties.

Why do projects fail in urban centers with many times our population? Why will we succeed?

Why will travelers to Omaha's rain forest, or Chicago's attractions, come here instead? If residents of Chicago and St. Louis are willing to leave their attractions behind, why will they prefer Coralville to California, New York or Florida? Will semi-truck drivers pull off I-80, leaving diesels running while they tour? Will the parents of Eastern Iowa's Wealthy Child be willing to pay -- at $60 for a family of four -- for numerous return visits?

Many other questions

Will the public ever see how money was spent on the campaign contributions that eased a $50 million federal grant? The payments to an administrator, prominent supporters and consultants?

Backers talk of 400 jobs. What's that payroll? At an average $50,000 for salary and fringes, it's $20 million. If they're low paying jobs, it's still $8 million. Even with environmentally friendly innovations, what's the utility bill for heating and cooling a five-acre, 20-story structure in Iowa? What's the water bill for a one-million-gallon aquarium and a humid rain forest? What are the other ongoing costs?

If it makes money, for itself or the adjoining hotel, is there any return to taxpayers, or do all profits from public money go to private beneficiaries? If there are losses, will taxpayers be expected to cover them? If it's abandoned, who cleans up a rotting rain forest? Who buys the structure?

There are dozens of questions besides financial viability. But it's a start.

Hopefully, they have been answered to the promoters' satisfaction. If not, shame on them. If so, why can't they share the information with those of us who are paying for the construction and picking up the pieces when it fails?

Reach Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa College of Law professor, at