Johnson: Rainforest Project Lacks Focus, Money

Julie Zare

The Daily Iowan

October 6, 2004

A lecturer in the UI College of Law who has studied the Iowa Environmental/Education Project since its inception on Tuesday criticized the planned facility as lacking focus and financial sustainability.

Nicholas Johnson said budget shortfalls, coupled with changes in the project's name and purpose, indicate key problems with the $180 million initiative formerly known as the Iowa Child Project. The widely publicized project has collected $90 million.

" 'If you build it, they will come' only works in the movies," he told the Sunrise Optimist Club of Coralville.

One project coordinator quickly disagreed, comparing the "digitally innovative, new and refreshing facility" with such attractions as the Amana Colonies, which attract 1 million visitors per year, and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library/Museum, which draws roughly 500,000 annually. Organizers have not gained any new funding since last spring, but they are still negotiating with businesses and individual philanthropists interested in working with the project, said project Vice President Nancy Quellhorst.

"It is a strenuous process," she said. "We've been working really hard for the past several months and are getting close to set arrangements."

She pointed to a study conducted by an independent Boston firm that projected between 1.1 million and 1.5 million visitors per year. But Johnson remained skeptical.

"The numbers mean that every man, woman, and child in the state of Iowa will have to pay it a visit, at least once every two years, from the day they're born until the day they die," he said.

Directors will gain access to land for the 4.5-acre indoor tropical rain forest - near the intersection of Interstate 80 and First Avenue - on Jan. 1, 2005.

Johnson, who calls himself "neither a booster nor a basher," has spoken and written about the Coralville rain-forest project since it was first announced. A major component of luring visitors to an attraction, he said, is the concept of "destination." Coralville, he said, does not qualify as a hot spot.

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