Return to Nicholas Johnson Main Web Page

Return to Nicholas Johnson's "Iowa Child" Page

The Elephant in the Rain Forest

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion
March 25, 2004
p. 9A

Hat's off to the Press-Citizen for its Coralville Rain Forest series and Monday forum.

Unfortunately, the forum's 11 presenters were all cheerleaders for the project. "Unfortunately" because local residents need to understand not only the promoters' dream that it will succeed but also the depth of disaster if it fails. Local taxpayers could be left with nothing but one of the state's largest, and most expensive, empty monuments to unexamined enthusiasm.

Following the forum, the elephant in this rain forest remains the lack of up-front capital. However valuable "bold vision" may be to Iowa's future, however fascinating the facets of this $180 million dream, drawings and projections may be, without the money it's no more realistic than an Iowa Child's wishing on a star.

The idea has been marketed - and rejected - since 1996. Now Coralville is interested, and $50 million of federal taxpayers' money has been obtained. There is no line-item budget available to the public that reveals what is, and is not, included in the $180 million. Therefore, it's hard to evaluate its realism or the significance of the promoters' representations regarding "an additional $40 million" from Ted Townsend, Coralville, and an unnamed energy company.

Missing information

In any event, neither a detailed construction budget, nor a specific list of contributors for the additional $90 million was provided.

The project's chief administrator, David Oman, indicated that by some undisclosed date this year a decision will be made either to continue fund-raising or to build something with what they have. Groundbreaking is apparently fixed for this fall. The problem with building "something," of course, is that the projections of attendance and operating revenue are based on representations this will be "the world's largest" indoor rain forest. Build a smaller one and all bets are off; the projections must be redone.

Construction costs are one thing, perhaps the easy thing, for tourist attractions. The hard part is the ongoing, operating costs. America's urban areas are littered with well-meaning efforts by local enthusiasts that failed to meet projected revenues.

Promoters have provided summary numbers that, if accurate, would put them "in the black." But a promoter with the best of intentions can let enthusiasm and public relations become intermixed with independent analysis. Where is their firms' underlying data? What have been those firms' best and worst past predictions (compared with subsequent reality) for other, similar attractions? Why will this project be self-sustaining when so many others aren't?

There's talk of "50,000 vehicles" that pass the site each day. In fact, it's 45,000, and three miles either side of the site it drops to 30,000. So how many are local residents, or commuters? How many will spend more than two hours and $50 or more for a family of four in a rain forest?

If they're relying on Iowans, every man, woman and child in the state will have to come to the site at least once every two or three years, forever, for it to break even.

Difficult to evaluate

Both the continually changing nature of the project, and its seeming lack of focus, make it difficult to evaluate. Once "Iowa Child," now the Iowa Environmental/Education Project, it's still looking for a name. Once $300 million, now $180 million, the construction costs (and therefore design and size) aren't yet fixed. The decisions have yet to be made as to which, and how many, animals to include. It once promised a school, but no longer. Some see it as a tourist attraction, others as a teacher-training center, energy demonstration projects, or a site for multi-million-dollar federal research.

There are many other categories of questions crying out for answers and supporting data; some are explored further at

We can be enchanted by the dream and grateful for the hard work of Oman and his board - or not. And certainly local boosterism has its place.

But whether you want to ensure this project succeeds, or stop it now, we fail to address these many issues at our peril.
Reach Nicholas Johnson, University of Iowa College of Law professor, at