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The Coralville Rain Forest: A Brief Overview of Remaining Issues

Nicholas Johnson

April 9, 2004


Introduction and Purpose Follow the Money Who Picks Up the Tab?
Show Me the Money Build It and They Will Come Governance
The Laugh Test The Sociology of Big E Education The Challenges of Innovation
Size The Moving Target Jobs and Economic Impact
What budget? Environmental Impact Advancing Science

Supporting Endnotes

Introduction and Purpose of Document

The purposes of this document are (a) to make the point that, six months before construction is to begin, there remains a rather substantial range of unresolved categories of questions regarding the proposed Coralville rain forest, and (b) to provide in one place a brief overview and sampling of those issues.

Proponents of the project (once "Iowa Child" and now "Iowa Environmental/Education Project") may view the asking of any questions, the posing of any issues, as "opposition." This document need not and should not be so considered. Indeed, it is the proponents who should be asking themselves and others these questions. It is they who have the most to gain -- or lose if the project should fail.

Why should any member of the public care? Aren't these matters only the proponents need worry about?

The fact is that the public has a very big stake in this project as well:

The proposed rain forest is is not just an effort of venture capitalists or entrepreneurs to start another boutique or try out some other business idea. When such businesses succeed the backers prosper; when they fail investors can just declare bankruptcy. Their space can usually be used for something else.

No, this rain forest -- a near quarter-billion-dollar project to build a structure three times the size of the Iowa State Capitol building -- will have an enormous public impact from any one of a number of points of view.

Having said this, none of what follows demands a conclusion the project not be done.

What it does demand is the fullest possible disclosure to the media and public of project details and supporting data. It demands that the project's promoters, and the public officials who support them, respond thoroughly and in detail to the issues identified here, and the additional ones raised by others.

The promoters' dream has been presented; their prominent backers' names are known; their cheerleaders have been heard in public forums. Anyone paying attention is aware of the contents of their somewhat summary public relations materials. The public has witnessed the boosterism of elected officials, media and others.

What the public needs now is an opportunity to know, and see tested, the specific detailed plans for the project's modules. It needs to see the underlying data and independent, hard headed analyses that can create as much confidence as is possible in advance of any project, that this thing is going to work -- structurally, ecologically, educationally, financially and in every other way.

Eight years into this project, it is disappointing that more of that kind of information has not been available all along from the project's Web site.

Indeed, if any of the data which follows is inaccurate or seriously dated the reason is, in largest measure, because of the promoters unwillingness to make public their internal and external reports, budgets, plans, white papers, designs and anything else that would enable the public to follow, and evaluate, the project as it evolves.

-- Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, April 9, 2004

 [Note: Since April 9 there have been some editorial changes and modest additions to this document, most notably regarding the project's education module, potential water usage, and role as a national research center. Anyone wishing the most current draft should use this one, from April 24, 2004. -- N.J.]

1. "Show me the money." A threshold, make-or-break issue is the availability of the necessary construction funds. Originally a $300 million proposal, then $225 million, it is now budgeted at $180 million. Proponents claim they now have $90 million of that. If the other $90 million cannot be found all other issues may become academic.

2. The laugh test. This document takes no position regarding the public ridicule of the project. But it does need to be recognized. Some believe it is preposterous to even think about building an indoor rain forest in Iowa, as some say "in a cornfield." They laugh at the idea or simply dismiss it out of hand. Others argue that if it actually does make Coralville a national tourist destination, and brings millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the state, who cares what the critics and humorists say?

3. Size. There are plans to break ground in the fall of 2004 -- regardless of whether the $180 million is in hand or not; to build "something." This raises two concerns. (a) This is not like constructing a housing development where a shortage of funds, or cost overruns, can always be dealt with by building fewer homes. There's not much one can do with a half-built 20-story dome. The option of constantly changing plans while building, so as to finish "something," gets very expensive. (b) Even if a smaller dome is designed, and efficiently built to its smaller plan, much of the tourist draw turns on the Coralville rain forest being marketed as "the world's largest." At some point a smaller one becomes much less effective at attracting tourists and revenue.1

4. What budget? (a) There appear to be no detailed, back-up, budget numbers for the construction of this project available to the public. Therefore, it is impossible to judge if the "$180 million" is reasonable, the likelihood of cost overruns, or whether the "$20 million" contribution from the City of Coralville, and "$10 million" from an unnamed energy company, can fairly be credited against the $180 million total. (Is part of the $20 million from Coralville for parking? In 2000 Ted Townsend indicated that parking was not, then, a part of the construction cost.2) (b) Moreover, there have been, and continue to be, expenditures by the project. The chief administrator is paid on the order of $150,000 a year, there was at one time a Department of Education grant of approximately $500,000, and the architect has already been paid nearly $700,000.3 Given the level of public funding of this project there ought to be public disclosure of the details of its current budget, income and expenditures.

5. "Follow the money." (a) To the extent the promoters rely on support of prominent individuals as evidence of the merit of their project, the public needs to know if, or the extent to which, those board members and others have been compensated in any way by the project. (b) A local paper reported that campaign contributions may have played a role in obtaining the $50 million in federal funding. That's probably not illegal, but does need to be documented. (c) There is no reason to believe that anyone can personally pull "profit" out of what is represented to be a "non-profit" venture. But given that a conference center and for-profit hotel and restaurant are being built next door -- and will undoubtedly benefit financially from the presence of the rain forest -- it should be revealed whether there are any relationships between those involved with the rain forest and those who stand to gain from its location.

6. "Build it and they will come." If there are 1.5 million visitors a year, and if each of them pays $15 to tour, the proponents' math is correct: 1.5 million times $15 is $22.5 million. There is enough at stake here, however, that the public deserves more than the bottom line on others' guesses -- even guesses that come from those who make their living making such estimates. What are the "experts'" underlying data, assumptions, and experience from analogous projects, that support their projections? What is the track record of these consultants? That is, what were their projections on other, comparable, projects and how close were they to the reality one, five, ten and twenty years later? The public hasn't been told. This one is central to the project's financial viability.

7. The sociology of Big E Education. Whether "Iowa Child" or "Environmental/Education Project," the project's promoters have emphasized the central mission and preeminent role of the "education" component of the rain forest.4

Two years ago, with the help of a $500,000 Department of Education grant, many individuals were brought together by the project, discussions held, and a "Final Report" prepared. To the extent a single idea can be pulled from that report, it would be its support for an approach to science education that is less curriculum, lesson plan, examination, lecture, text book, and classroom-based, and more oriented to encouraging students' natural curiosity with hands-on experiences with the process of science. It's an approach widely endorsed, and practiced, by progressive science teachers now. The idea would be to make some form of this approach available, both as teacher training and for students, utilizing the resources of the rain forest.

Of course, a rain forest is not only unnecessary to such an educational approach, it can even be self-defeating (if an individual student's curiosity runs in entirely different directions). To the extent that a large "lab" is useful, it could as well be JPL on the West Coast, NASA's Cape Canaveral on the East Coast, Boeing's design and manufacturing facilities, or any pharmaceutical lab and manufacturing plant. But such facilities aren't necessary. This approach to science education would work as well in a state park, on a farm, in any student's backyard -- or even in a classroom, with the right teacher.

So we're left with some issues.

(a) Focus. This approach to science education does not necessarily require a "facility" of any kind. Utilizing a facility through which one hopes to bring 1.1 to 1.5 million paying tourists each year may actually detract from the educational mission.

(b) What is the current status of the two-year-old "Final Report"? Is it a "board-approved" document? Is it the basis for what has yet to be drafted and proposed for board approval as a blueprint for the educational program? If not, when is such a document scheduled to be prepared and approved?

(c) Whatever the answers may be, neither the "Final Report" and its Appendices, nor any more current, focused document, has been made available on the project's Web site for the media and public.

(d) What has happened to the individuals brought together two years ago? Are they still a functioning, integrated group, or have they scattered? Most especially, are the institutions they represent willing, today, to support this educational facility -- not only politically and for public relations purposes, but with their personnel (as teachers and students) and financial support?

(e) If the prior group no longer exists, or exists but is unable (or unwilling) to fund the educational module, what will be its ongoing, operating costs and where will that money come from (e.g., parents, school districts, teachers, or governmental grants)?

(f) Who is, now, charged with bringing this educational program into existence? The "Final Report" endorsed the intuitive suggestion that it requires, not another publicist, but an "education director." Has such a person been hired? If not, is recruitment under way? If not, when is it planned?

8. The moving target. Ground breaking is currently scheduled for Fall 2004, and yet: (a) Any evaluation of the project is seriously handicapped by the lack of "transparency": public information about the details of construction and operating costs, the education component, and virtually all other details. The project's Web page -- the cheapest and most potentially thorough way of making documents available -- has remained sketchy at best. Given the proportion of funding coming from the public, this reluctance violates the spirit, if not the law, of the Freedom of Information Act. (b) The evaluation -- and public confidence in the project -- is further handicapped by the project's seeming lack of focus.5 Some overlap of functions is possible: tourist attraction, showplace for energy conservation technology, teacher training and other educational programs, and facility for research scientists -- but as the mix and emphasis changes over time so do the potential conflicts in these multiple missions. (c) Many elements of the project continue to change over time. Originally a $300 million project, then $225 million, it's currently $180 million -- with the possibility of more cuts. Obviously, changes in the construction budget have necessitated changes in the architectural design. Originally "Iowa Child,"6 now "Iowa Environmental/Education Project," it's still looking for a better name. Originally to include a hotel and K-5 school, they're no longer in the plans. Promoters have yet to decide which, and how many, animals to include.

9. Environmental impact. (a) Promoters say an unnamed energy company has given the project $10 million. This may just be a generous willingness on the part of its CEO to give away what would otherwise be shareholders' dividends. More likely, the company sees an opportunity to return many times that amount in sales of electricity and natural gas. After all, this project involves heating a 20-story, 4.5-acre open structure in winter, and cooling it in summer -- at a cost of $3 million a year or more.7 Because the public has been told neither the name of the company nor the details of the "gift," it is hard to evaluate. If the project uses enough power that the energy company must build additional facilities, the cost of that construction will be passed on to local residents in the form of increased rates. If the "gift" consists of lower gas and electric rates for the rain forest ("the more you use the less you pay"), that could also create pressure to raise others' rates. And if that's the form of the "gift" (i.e., a reduction in operating expenses) it is inappropriate to treat it as a contribution toward the $180 million construction costs fundraising goal.

(b) Concern has been expressed that the water for a one or two-million-gallon aquarium and rain forest could cause a dangerous lowering of the local area's water table, increased demand on local water plants, with increased consumer prices for water -- or all of the above. Promoters now talk of recycling and collecting the rainfall on the roof and parking lot as a partial source of water.8 Even if water table concerns turn out to be a non-issue (because the drainage from the roof and parking lot wouldn't otherwise enter the water table, there are no projected water shortages for local communities using Iowa River water, all the project's water will be recycled, or 30 million gallons is de minimus in this context) the public still hasn't been told just how much water will be needed from community water plants above and beyond what the project takes from the roof, parking lot, and recycling, or how this usage could impact on local water supplies and prices.

10. Who Picks Up the Tab? Promoters promise they won't come to the public for operating funds. But that promise has not been backed up with any legally enforceable personal assumption of the financial risk. Presumably everyone hopes that, if the project is to be built, it will end up being financially self-supporting. But there should be some advance agreement as to what happens if it is not. Otherwise the public officials and residents of the area will be confronted with three options: (a) tear down a rotting rain forest and empty million-gallon aquarium, and try to find some alternative use for the land, (b) undertake a subsidization of so much of the operating costs as are not covered by revenue from attendance and other sources, or (c) so radically cut back on staff, services and features as to undercut the project's value as an attraction.

11. Governance. Given the project's record of lack of transparency, the issue of possible public participation in the project's governance needs to be -- but has not been -- addressed. For example, given the public financing, the public has an interest in the level of ticket prices -- including the charges for students on field trips. (Are children to be the primary beneficiaries of "Iowa Child" or the primary sources of its revenue? Is this project, once called "Iowa Child," in fact designed only for the benefit of Iowa's wealthy child?) The public may feel it has an interest in the extent to which corporate underwriting -- if any -- is accompanied by advertising, naming rights, exhibits, or other commercialization of this "non-profit" project. The public certainly has an interest in the quantity and quality of the dome's maintenance and upkeep. Finally, educators and other members of the public have an interest in whether the project's exhibits (a) emphasize, or (b) ignore, the role of global corporations in the disappearance of real rain forests.

12. The challenges of innovation. Obviously, without a "final answer" in the spring of 2004 as to up-front funding and architectural and engineering design, it is exceedingly risky to begin construction in the fall. Even with final funding and plan in hand, however, risks remain. Being on "the cutting edge" is exciting and progressive; but there's a reason why "the cutting edge" is sometimes referred to as "the bleeding edge."

Does the project have a sufficient range and number of experts to design and execute this project? Cost overruns occur with the most conventional construction -- as many a homeowner can attest. Much of this construction project is sufficiently innovative and first-of-a-kind that unanticipated problems, with their increased costs, are even more likely than with more conventional projects.

It would be helpful if there were a detailed PERT chart for the construction (i.e., something more detailed than "starting construction fall 2004" and "finish project in 2008"). Has thought been given to labor relations (e.g., will the project use a Project Labor Agreement ("PLA"))?

Nor is it now totally clear just what this "rain forest" is going to be. Ted Townsend once proposed artificial, perhaps plastic, trunks of trees, on which smaller trees would rest.9 The present plan seems to be to bring 50-foot trees by barge from their native Florida, up the Mississippi River, and on to Coralville by rail or truck. Many of these are not fast growing trees; figs and other rain forest trees can take as long as 100 years to reach full height.10 If they are placed on plastic trunks it will give credit to critics' charge this will be "a fake rain forest." If they are not, there will be a substantial empty space between the tree tops and the 150-200-foot ceiling.11 This also raises the question of how high to place the walkways, designed to enable visitors to walk through and view the forest's canopy. Should they be where the canopy will be on opening day, or where it will be 10 or 20 years later?)

What categories of possible problems may arise with the plants and trees, the animals, and with putting both in the same space? Have such problems at least been identified, if not addressed and resolved? If so, where is this report? One indoor rain forest project realized, after completion, that maintenance personnel had no way of reaching, and trimming, the tree tops -- rapidly growing toward the ceiling. Another watched its trees fall over, only to find out later that trees in real rain forests need strong winds to strengthen their root structure. Even if not so dramatic, similar unanticipated problems are likely for this project.

13. Jobs and economic impact. Not only has the public been denied a look at the detailed construction budget, it has not seen the operating budget either. One of the project's advantages, according to promoters, is its creation of jobs -- both within the project and as as a consequence of a "ripple effect." Promoters say the "average" wage will be $30,000 or so. What will the job categories be; how many will be employed in each category; what will those in each category be paid in wages or salary, plus benefits (if any)? What is the detail supporting the representations about the "ripple effect" of this project on other jobs within the state and income brought into the region? Is there agreement among independent economists regarding these projections?

14. Advancing Science. Dr. Scott J. Carpenter has offered one more reason for building a $180 million indoor rain forest in Coralville ("Advancing Science," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 18, 2004). He has suggested that the rain forest can become a magnet for world class scientific researchers and the grants they are able to attract. He believes grants on the order of $5 million a year are a reasonable prediction.

Given Carpenter's association with the University of Iowa's Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research it's understandable he would find a $180 million gift appealing. And, although not revealed in his column or the paper's slug identifying him, he was also one of the cheerleaders for the project at the Press-Citizen's March 22 "forum."

Obviously, substantial and stable funding for a nationally prominent research center would be a significant addition to the Iowa City-Coralville area. But that does not address whether such a result is likely from this particular project.

Otherwise it's a great idea.


Supporting Endnotes

1. Even some of the project's consultants, such as John Picard, acknowledge the problems with attracting the public if the size of the project is cut back. "In September, project engineers unveiled a retooled design that had been scaled back both in size and cost. Picard said scaling the physical design back further would critically detract from the experience. 'You need to be immersed in the environment for three or four hours to make the experience meaningful,' he said." John Darda, "Consultant: Iowa Child Won't Pollute," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 12, 2001. Note that the project at that time was projected to cost $225 million, and that it has already been cut back to $180 million.

2. "The $280 million price tag does not include costs for land or parking, which Townsend said would be much cheaper to acquire in Coralville . . .." Fred Lucas, "Coralville Makes Bid for Iowa Child," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 28, 2000.

3. Brian Sharp, "Iowa Child Chief Made $148,791," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 13, 2002. As the headline indicates, the story reported that "The Iowa Child Institute's chief executive earned a $148,791 salary last year," presumably calendar 2001, and that "Peter Sollogub and his Boston firm . . . received $679,915 to design the $225 million environmental education complex." The project ran in the hole that year, with expenses of $1.54 million and revenues of $1.46 million -- $1.2 million of which came from Ted Townsend.

David Oman had earlier indicated that the story's reference to "a $500,000 government grant" is the Department of Education grant: "Oman said $500,000 already is in the pipeline to help Iowa Child define its educational component." Brian Sharp, "Iowa Child to Consider Cutting Costs," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 3, 2001.

4. An example of the project's educational focus is that "He [Ted Townsend] stressed that education is the primary motive behind the project." (emphasis added) "Townsend said the primary focus for Iowa Child would be on ecological literacy, health education, employment skills, character education, and arts and culture." Fred Lucas, "Iowa Child Opposition Surfaces," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2000. "[A] teacher training center is the driving force behind Iowa Child, he [Ted Townsend] said. . . . Studying innovative ways to teach Iowa's children through a teacher-training center and a public school is the most important part, he said." Aarti Totlani, "Iowa Child His Brainchild: Townsend Wants to Leave Legacy," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 9, 2000. On the other hand, the educational component has shifted in content and focus over time, as David Oman confirmed in 2001: "Oman said it is too soon to say what is, or is not, expendable within the education mission." Brian Sharp, "Iowa Child to Consider Cutting Costs," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 3, 2001. It appears it is still "too soon to say" in the spring of 2004; at least there is now no current, white paper or report setting forth the detailed educational plans, budget, and practical techniques for obtaining educators' support available to media and public from the project's Web site.

Out of a commitment to completeness, and a sense of fairness, it should be noted that a lot of time, by a great many people, not to mention $500,000 of federal money, have gone into thinking about the project's possible education component. Iowa Child Institute, "Final Report: Education Planning for the Iowa Educational Environmental Project," September 20, 2002, with its accompanying "Final Report Appendices," has been written and filed with the granting agency for this "FIE Earmark Grant Award DUNS 049357606."

This activity, and the "Final Report's" existence, do not, however, resolve the category of questions involving the project's education component for a variety of reasons. (a) Six months before ground breaking, there is no executive yet hired to carry out whatever the plan may be. (b) The report is not publicly available, either online or in libraries (so far as is known). It was apparently prepared primarily for the Iowa Child Institute board and granting agency rather than the media and public. (c) A superficial read of the materials leaves one with a sense of creative ideas that are often commendable and even practical, rather than a single, specific blueprint approved by the board and ready to implement. (d) It does not appear that the individuals brought together in 2002 have continued to meet and further refine their deliberations. (e) For the educational component to be viable a large number of institutions will need to buy into it (literally and figuratively) -- from the top down, and from the bottom up. They will need to have individuals willing to both provide the project's educational services, and to utilize the resources thereby made available. There is no way for the public to know if these commitments exist as of 2004. (f) There is no way of knowing if there is enough money in hand, or realistically available, to carry out whatever the plan may prove to be.

Much of this may be salvageable, but it does not appear that effort has yet begun.

5. Even the project's chief administrator, David Oman, was quoted on April 11, 2001, as having said that "It requires a true focus." Sadly, today, it still does. He went on to say, "People have questions. They have a right to have questions. I had questions, and I still do." Whether he still has questions, six months before ground breaking, only he can say. But "people" still do, and they still "have a right to." Brian Sharp, "Iowa Child to Retool Plan," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 11, 2001.

6. Where did "Iowa Child" come from? The Press-Citizen reported that "Iowa Child is an acronym for the Iowa Center for Health In a Loving Democracy." Brian Sharp, "Iowa Child cuts may top $30M: Revised plans due in July," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 21, 2001.

7. The $3 million a year estimate comes from an Iowa City resident, and is seemingly confirmed by Ted Townsend, who says energy costs will be 15 percent of the $26 million annual budget (which comes to $3.9 million annually). "Iowa City resident Dan Eccher questioned how environmentally friendly the project would be compared to the natural resources that it would use. 'The energy consumption is a $3 million electric bill per year,' he said. 'In Iowa, most of the electric comes from burning coal.' He also said the artificial rain forest would require a lot of water resources. Ted Townsend, the project's founder, responded that the project administrators would seek alternative energy sources, such as solar or wind power. He said 15 percent of the annual $26 million operating cost will be spent on energy." Fred Lucas, "Iowa Child Opposition Surfaces," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 13, 2000.

8. "Designers will capture on-site rainfall, estimated at 30 million gallons each year . . .." "The New Iowa Child," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 11, 2001. To provide an idea of how much this is, the City of Iowa City uses as an estimate of 200 cubic feet per person per month as its average customer's consumption (200 times 12 months times 7.48 gallons per cubic foot times two persons in a household would be 35,904 gallons per household per year). Divide the 30 million gallons by 35,904 and it represents 836 dwelling units. Since Coralville has about 7,500 accounts (including businesses and industrial users),  836 dwelling units would represent more than 10% of Coralville's usage.

9. "When a member of the Home Builders Association asked how he planned to fill the space with trees, Townsend explained the bottom third of the forest, mostly tree trunks, would not be living but 'simulated.' . . . 'You will walk through and not have the faintest idea it is not 100 percent real.' The fake tree trunks will support the living environment and be notched in places for real greenery to take root." Brian Sharp, "Iowa Child Scraps School," March 10, 2001.

10. "Picard, however, admitted that he sees some flaws. From an operational standpoint, the facility will not open with a fully-grown rain forest, leaving administrators with the question of how to keep public interest high, he said." John Darda, supra, note 1. "It will take 100 years for real fig and other trees to grow and replace the simulated environment, he [Ted Townsend] said." Brian Sharp, supra, note 9.

11. The project's Web site (as of April 2004) makes reference to its 4.5-acre area but not its height. As funding and structure change, of course, so does height. But as of 2001 the Press-Citizen reported that "He [Ted Townsend] calls the project, among other things, an architectural marvel. The Lied Jungle in Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo today is the nation's largest indoor rain forest, at one acre and two stories. The Iowa Child rain forest would become the world's largest, at five acres and 20 stories." Brian Sharp, supra, note 9. Estimating a "story" at 8 to 10 feet, the ceiling of the 20-story structure would be 160 to 200 feet above the forest floor.