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The Iowa City Press-Citizen's "Iowa Child" Three-Part Series . . .

Note: On Saturday, March 20, 2004, the Iowa City Press-Citizen announced that it was launching a three-part series about the "Iowa Child/Environmental-Education Project." It is, of course, copyright  by the Press-Citizen, and is posted here as a fair use display, for educational purposes only, of material already made freely available to the public on the newspaper's Web site. For subscription information go to

At the Web site you're looking at now the relevant material from each day's paper is presented on a separate page. This page contains the material from March 21. For each, click on March 20, March 21 and March 22.

Sidebar material is blocked and indented on this Web page to set it apart.

A summary "table of contents" set of links is provided here to ease searching the many separate pieces and sidebars presented by the paper in this issue.

Contents of Series in March 21st Paper

Brian Sharp, "Money Matters: Making a Rain Forest Pay for Itself"

The Board of Directors Iowa Child/Iowa Environmental/Education Project

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Money matters: Making a rain forest pay for itself

There now is an answer to what one lawmaker calls the “kingpin” question about a proposed rain forest and education project: How will it pay for itself? An updated operating budget for the Iowa Environmental/Education Project outlines, in the greatest detail to date, where the money will come from, expenses and the bottom line.

More... [first two link to March 20 presentation sidebars]
• Previous Coverage
• Budgets
• Board Members
The summary shows a $3.3 million opening-year profit dwindling to
nothing after five years - as expected, project officials said - then a recovery.

"It's a fully loaded expense budget, which is actually the conservative way to do this," said David Oman, the project's chief administrator, "to anticipate as much on the expense side as you can think of and to budget for that.

The series
• Saturday: Three years after a proposed rain forest and education project is pitched in Coralville, groundbreaking could be months away. But details remains fluid, including the energy and water systems that will make it go.
• Monday: Critics scoff at the idea of re-creating a rain forest in Iowa. It is no small task, to be sure. From the plants and the trees, to bird, fish and animals, decisions about what lives inside will determine everything from layout to life support systems needed.
Town meeting
The Press-Citizen is hosting a public forum about the Iowa Environmental/Education Project from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at Northwest Junior High School.
"We didn't think it worthwhile to put much time in revisiting budgets until we saw a degree of reality."

With an eye on breaking ground in late fall and a possible 2008 opening, Oman and the project design team are pushing to finalize a host of details, including design, what goes inside and how to pay for it all. Since targeting Coralville in December 2000, the proposal progressed to this point despite many questions, likely none more persistent than finances.

"Where are we with our bottom line financial statement?" Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, asked last week. "That's the kingpin right now. We have all the pamphlets, the videos we've watched ... I know these things take time, but what's it been, three years?"

Oman and company offer the following:


Nature can be cruel - at least when trying to harness it, house it and keep it alive without going broke in the process. The landscape of those who have tried is marked by great successes and great failures.

For every Eden Project, a multi-climate nature enclosure thriving in Cornwall, England, there is an Ocean Journey, a $94 million aquarium in Denver that went belly-up after three years.

"You need to go into it with your eyes open and realize that building it might be the easiest part of the entire project," said Lee Simmons, director of the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha and the Lied Jungle, once the nation's largest enclosed, total immersion rain forest in the world.

That title now belongs to Eden. One day, it could belong to the Iowa Environmental/Education Project, rising southeast of Interstate 80 and First Avenue in Coralville. Along with a 4.5-acre enclosed rain forest, the latter promises a 1 million-gallon aquarium, learning academies, a restaurant or market and a digital theater similar to IMAX. All of this would be enclosed in a translucent down, stretching three football fields in length and rising 18 stories tall.

Project leaders point to three feasibility studies that concluded the project can succeed.

"The numbers confirm that the project will be a significant national attraction," Oman said. "We're pleased with what we're learning. We still have some questions.

"Clearly, you want to run in the black, you need to run in the black, you have to have some set-aside (money). But you're not here to try and spike the needle. You want to aim it, you want to price it so you have the most people inside to experience it, to learn from it."

He said financial projections are beyond conservative, pointing out the mid-range attendance is 250,000 below stabilized attendance at the Eden Project.

With projected baseline attendance pulling in 3,500 daily visitors (60 percent from out of state), the project team looks to the 50,000 vehicles that pass daily on I-80, what Oman calls the "voluntary toll booth." Two miles west, Coral Ridge Mall draws 10 million visitors each year; 2.8 million from outside the area.


The Lied Jungle is not self-supporting. Simmons stifles a laugh when asked to confirm that point.

"These are very energy- and manpower-intense operations," he said, adding that annual expenses easily can rise to $20 million. "That's where some of these stand-alone aquariums run into problems, is they run into these 200-plus support staffs because they had to put all the management in place, whereas we ... already have to zoo infrastructure that supports it.

"With any big project, what's important is you do it (construction) without debt," he said. "So far, no zoo or aquarium has managed to survive if they have any significant amount of debt service."

Simmons points to Denver, Long Beach, Calif., and Tampa, Fla. Media reports show:

Oman said that while the Iowa Child Institute, the non-profit governing organization, could borrow the remaining money needed, the goal is to open debt-free. A projected $9.8 million to $11.9 million salary bill the first year translates to an average salary of more than $30,000.

Thirty miles north in Cedar Rapids, the Science Station-McLeod/Busse IMAX Dome Theatre turns a profit. However, the $7 million facility's 135,000 annual visitors are slightly below projections, which is not unusual in Iowa, project spokesman Joe Nolte said.

Rich Patterson, executive director for the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, told the Cedar Rapids rotary club Monday that non-profits have hit a tough stretch in recent years. The difficulty is in raising operational funds, he said, explaining over-optimistic attendance projections are a common downfall. Corporations would rather fund construction than operations, he said, leaving individuals and governments to pitch in. Echoing Simmons' comments, he said running a non-profit facility is more difficult than building it.

The average tenure for a non-profit director: Three years.

(sub head)

Until now, project officials only offered vague financial projections from 1999 pertaining to Cedar Rapids, and a 2001 report for Coralville. The former was state funded and is on the Internet. The latter was internal, released to the Press-Citizen this month absent expenses and revenues, though Oman said the numbers exist.

The 1999 report provides a general breakdown showing net income at just $200,000 on the low end. Since then, project cost and scope has changed dramatically. Yet Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he relied on such studies when securing $50 million in federal aid for the project.

Jim Moore, 65, lives near the proposed Coralville site. The Edgewater Drive resident can look out his living room window and see the mix of warehouses and industrial businesses where the rain forest could rise. Much like Jacoby, Moore and his wife, Judy, 66, are not critics. It's the uncertainty that is unsettling.

"I don't think it's self-supporting," said Moore, who has lived in the same house the past 40 years. "And how is it going to be paid for? I'd sure hate to see it get where the taxpayers are going to have to pay for it. But I don't think a lot of people think it's going to be built."

Coralville city officials slated the land southeast of I-80 and First Avenue for redevelopment before the rain forest and education complex came on the horizon. Now they are willing to provide $20 million in land and infrastructure in return for the influx in visitors.

City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said it will be at least two or three months before the land transaction takes place. Assistant City Attorney Kevin Olson said the development agreement will iron out details including timeline and land transfer agreements.

"I can imagine that thing will be a thick document," Olson said.

As far as city financial support beyond the initial provisions, Hayworth said, "Our discussion all along is that that is something we will not be involved in."

Oman agrees and insists the $50 million federal commitment resolved question of viability. The question now, he says, is when. The $50 million is not dependent upon additional fund-raising.

"If we didn't put another dollar in the project, we could still build something quite sizable," he said.

The problem, financial consultant Muller said, is that "this is a scale-specific project, you cannot do half the project and hope to get half the results."

Reporter Rebecca Schultze contributed to this story.

Reach Brian Sharp at 339-7360 or

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Board

More... [sidebars linked from March 20 presentation]
  • Creating power, building dreams
  • Similar projects in the United States and Europe.
  • Details of the project then in 2000 and now in 2004.
  • Question-and-answer session with David Oman.
  • The project timeline.
Former Gov. Robert D. Ray
Des Moines

Thomas L. Aller
president, Alliant Energy Investments, Inc.
Cedar Rapids

Robert Burnett
former CEO, Meredith Corp.

Dr. David Campbell
professor of biology, Grinnell College

Dr. Ronald S. Fielder
chief administrator, Grant Wood Area Education Agency
Cedar Rapids

William Fultz
William J. Fultz & Associate, Inc.
Des Moines

B.J. Fergerson
facilities board president, Iowa Public Television

John Hieronymus
president, Iowa State Education Association
Iowa City

Joe Hladky
president, Gazette Co.
Cedar Rapids

Richard D. Johnson
former state auditor

Dr. Stanley R. Johnson
vice president, Iowa State University

Dr. Norm Nielsen
president, Kirkwood Community College
Cedar Rapids

Kevin O'Brien
McDonald's Restaurant

David Oman
chief adminsitrator, Iowa Environmental/Education Project
Des Moines

Merlin Plagge
former president, Iowa Farm Bureau

W. Ward Reynoldson
former chief justice, Iowa Supreme Court
Des Moines

Dr. David Skorton
president, University of Iowa
Iowa City

Dr. Daryl Smith
professor of biology and science education
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls

Ted Townsend
Townsend Engineering Co.
Des Moines

Dick Myers
business owner, former legislator
Iowa City

Dr. Paula Vincent
associate superintendent, Cedar Rapids Public Schools
Cedar Rapids

Dr. Robert Yager
professor of science education, University of Iowa
Iowa City