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Evaluating Iowa Child's $20 Million Application

Nicholas Johnson

April 20 and 21, 2005

References:

The largest collection of balanced information and opinion pro and con regarding the rain forest project, with dozens of links to full text: Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Nicholas Johnson's latest op ed overview of the project (as of April 21, 2005): "Time to Build or Get Off the Lot," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 11, 2005.

Journalistic report of the project's $20 million application (draft dated April 5, to be filed July 1, 2005): Zack Kucharski, "Rain Forest to Seek $20 Million from State," The Gazette, April 20, 2005, p. A1.

Journalistic report of the project's proposed "education" component: Adam Pracht, "Rain Forest Education Plan Outlined," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2005

Nicholas Johnson's evaluation of the $20 million application begins immediately below; his reactions to the proposed education component, "The Rain Forest Education Plan," is further down the page.

The lack of enthusiasm from the blogosphere can be found at the Iowa Pork Forest and the comments of Random Mentality.



In its April 20, 2005, edition, The Gazette reports that the Iowa Child organization ("Iowa Environmental Project," "Coralville Rain Forest") intends to apply for $20 million in State funds. Zack Kucharski, "Rain Forest to Seek $20 Million from State," The Gazette, April 20, 2005, p. A1.

In fairness, the "draft application" is dated April 5 and the deadline for submission is not until July 1. Nonetheless, if the project is going to talk about this application -- with the clear effort at an implication that the additional $20 million is a real possibility -- it's not unreasonable for the public and media to give it a look and evaluation.

In terms of the questions and concerns this project has generated over the past nine years, what answers does this application provide?

Sadly, examination reveals it's something between few and none at all.

"Show Me the Money"

A concern so serious it is a deal breaker has been the availability of funding, sometimes called "the elephant in the rain forest." Backers say it's a $180 million project (without ever spelling out what the $180 million covers or how cost overruns will be handled). After nine years of fundraising they are still $90 million short. Even if $180 million is enough to cover all costs from now through the first year's operation, including cost overruns, a $90 million shortfall in a $180 million project is not insignificant.

Even if the $20 million were granted, and the $180 million is accurate, would that solve the problem? No. Instead of being $90 million short on a $180 million project they would be $70 million short on a $180 million project.

So far as the promoters have revealed to the public, they have been unsuccessful during the past 12 months in raising a single dime more than they had a year ago.

The Gazette earlier reported, "Board chairman and former Gov. Robert Ray said the projectís executive director, David Oman, should not be criticized for the pace. '. . . heís been working night and day,'í Ray said." Lyle Muller and Tom Owen, "Rain Forest Timeline Addressed," The Gazette, April 12, 2005.

Of course, this assertion cuts both ways. It speaks well of Oman's efforts. But it also raises more questions. If someone with David Oman's charm, energy (and salary from the project) is actually working that hard doesn't it tell us something about the project's business plan and prospects that nobody -- no wealthy individual, government program, foundation, or corporation -- has been willing to put additional money into it?

Putting aside the shortfall and the concerns just mentioned, what is the likelihood the $20 million will be granted?

Zack Kucharski's April 20 story in The Gazette reports the current status of two agencies' budgets and commitments:

"The project will seek Community Attraction and Tourism funds because the roughly $225 million allocated for the Vision Iowa fund already has been distributed, Vision Iowa Program Manager Nichole Warren said.

The CAT fund is to receive only $12 million annually through 2010, meaning an award the size of what The Environmental Project would seek would be given out in a multiyear agreement, Warren said. The Environmental Project request would fall behind 22 requests seeking more than $15 million that the Vision Iowa board already is reviewing."

So what are we talking about? Iowa Child is asking Vision Iowa for $20 million, but Vision Iowa had only $225 million and it's already distributed. OK. So Iowa Child will ask for Community Attraction and Tourism money. But it's asking for $20 million, and CAT's entire annual budget is only $12 million, and it's already looking at 22 requests ahead of Iowa Child that already total $15 million.

I don't get it. Am I missing something? Hopefully so. Otherwise this application makes absolutely no sense.

Show Me the Details

One of the ongoing concerns about the rain forest project has been the promoters' unwillingness, or inability, to reveal the details of what would often be called a "business plan."

What is the focus of this project, tourism or scientific research or something else? Until one can know what on earth they're talking about it's awfully difficult to evaluate whether it makes any sense. The application still leaves some ambiguity in this department, as it apparently refers to much of the laundry list of "potential missions" that have been there all along.

Kucharski reports:

"Environmental Project officials still hope to break ground this year on the 20-story rain forest, which would include a 1 million-gallon aquarium.

* * *

The grant application also details an educational component, which includes virtual reality technology, partnerships with area schools and a long-range goal of adding a public school to the site.

* * *

Other details of the projectís science education program are to be released today by Ted Stilwill, the projectís director of learning."

On March 23 one of the project's backers revealed that it is a "misconceptionĒ to think of the project as a tourist attraction since ďthe primary intent is scientific research and education.Ē Sandra L. Hudson, "'Rain Forest' Serves Environment," Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 23, 2005 (and see my response, Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Build or Get Off the Lot," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 11, 2005).

Given this change of focus on March 23 it is surprising to find that a couple of weeks later, as Kucharski reports, "The draft application shows predicted attendance at 1.1 million to 1.5 million and annual net revenue of $21.8 million." Since it is a "misconception" to think of the rain forest as a tourist attraction when it's actually for "scientific research" that seems to be an awful lot of folks standing around watching scientists do research.

Once the physical structure, program activities, levels of ongoing expenditure, and sources of cash flow have been settled upon one can then begin to address the economic feasibility of the project. But apparently, at least as of April 2005, this is no more detailed and precise than it has been over the last four years.

As Kucharski reports,

"The draft application, dated April 5, lacked critical financial information. The projectís five-year financial projections and marketing plans were still being developed, while the operational and maintenance plan was under review by project officials. Work on the projectís marketing plan was being done during the week of March 27, the draft revealed."
So there you have it.

I expect good things from Ted Stilwill, and am looking forward to reading his proposals. But I'll be as interested in their sociology (what will be the motive for school districts, teachers, and students to participate?) and economics (how will it be funded when, for example, the Iowa City Community School District can't even raise the money to bus students a mile or two to view the much cheaper "Iowa Hall" in downtown Iowa City?) as their academic content.

And this all raises, still, the question of inconsistent missions and a failure of focus. Is this going to be a scientific research center or a tourist attraction? If the latter, as was the focus until March 23, and now appears to be once again, how is it that "a long-range goal of adding a public school to the site" fits with 1.1 to 1.5 million tourists milling about among the school children? Is that something that parents, teachers -- and the students themselves -- are going to find compatible with the operation of a school?

Guess we'll all have to stay tuned.


The Rain Forest Education Plan

[Note: These comments are a response to, and draw their facts and quotes from, Adam Pracht, "Rain Forest Education Plan Outlined," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2005.]

Sadly -- and, for the most part through no fault of former Iowa education chief Ted Stilwill -- the project's proposed "education plan" only perpetuates, rather than dispels, the concerns of rain forest project observers.

The plan was revealed one day after its $20 million application to an agency that only receives $12 million a year to cover all applications. See above.

I.

In "Time to Build or Get Off the Lot" (see link at top of the screen), I noted that a couple of the project's major problems from the outset have been the combination of (a) so many diverse beautiful dreams of what the project might become that those dreams and their promoters project a project lacking in specific focus, (b) a language for describing them that seemingly treats "ideas and possibilities" as the equivalent of a rock solid business plan that might detail how they could become a reality, and (c) a willingness to divert attention from the failure to raise a dime of the $90 million shortfall during the past year with announcements of names of persons added to staff or advisory boards, or new dreams.

As Adam Pracht reports, the education plan merely perpetuates these problems:

""We have lots of ideas and lots of possibilities," Stilwill said.

"But still no firm financial plans."

II.

The reference to a "$180 million project" (that is $90 million short) is bad enough, since, as referenced above, there has yet to be any detailed explanation of what that $180 million does and does not cover, and how cost overruns will be funded.

But from Pracht's report, the economics of the education plan are worse:

"He [Stilwill] said at least several hundred thousand dollars would be needed to start up, but that it would need to ramp up to several million dollars a year to keep running."
In short, not only do they have no money in hand for the education dreams, they don't even have an unsupported figure (like the $180 million for construction) for how much money they would need if they did have access to any money. It's just something between "several hundred thousand" and "several million dollars a year."

And, of course, there was no business plan detailing where one could reasonably expect those "several million dollars a year" to come from.

III.

Another problem over the years has been the project's proclivity for "stonewalling," failing to reveal to the public what's going on with this publicly-funded project -- either on their own, or even when asked specific questions.

The project has now paid a professional fund raising firm to go out and find the missing $90 million. When asked, however, Pracht reports, "She [Quellhorst] declined to say how much the project was paying the firm"

Apparently the education component "is working with partners . . . to create a national report on the state of science literacy . . .." Those partners, however, are "yet to be named."

IV.

Deadlines have constantly been missed (see the description on the "Coralville Rain Forest" Web site, under the sub-heading "Opposition" / "Falling Behind Schedule"). It looks like that is happening once again. The ground breaking was originally scheduled for 2004.

Now Pracht reports:

"Meanwhile, the project's completion timeline continued to loosen. The draft application stated that the project's design team 'estimates opening of the project could occur in 2008 or 2009.'
"The original stated goal was April 22, 2008 -- Earth Day. In February, Quellhorst said completion was more likely for mid-to-late 2008 because a planned ceremonial groundbreaking and start of work were set back by about a year.

"Quellhorst said a 2009 completion wasn't for sure . . .."

Finally, we're left with some of the questions I raised yesterday, see above.

V.

What is going to make these educational dreams work in practical sociological/psychological terms? Why will teachers come? Are their school districts going to pay them to do so? If so, where will that money come from? Is the rain forest going to pay them? Are they going to be expected to volunteer their time, or even pay "tuition" for the privilege? If they will get added academic credit and credentials (that could, perhaps, be translated into increased pay from their school districts) which fully accredited academic institution will be awarding that credit?

Pracht refers in his lead to, "A complete school with a 4.5-acre rain forest in its back yard as its laboratory" -- albeit "well down the road" accordingly to Stilwill. Have they really thought through the issues raised by putting school children in the midst of what they project to be 1.1 to 1.5 million tourists a year?

And it may be a detail, but it's a significant one: unless this is going to be a private school (which raises other issues), schools are normally found in school districts, not rain forests. It may be that a district can be found where taxpayers are willing to shoulder the cost of running this school, but there are no volunteers standing in line at this point.

VI.

I won't even comment about the "option to camp in the rain forest for an estimated $42 a night" except to note that it raises a central economic issue. I've yet to read a sensitive statement from any of the promoters regarding the cost of children's participation. As I once put the question, is "Iowa Child" really only intended for "Iowa's Wealthy Child"? How are they proposing that school field trips to the rain forest be paid for? There are a great many parents in Iowa who will find it difficult to pay even the transportation and entrance fees for their kids, let alone the $42 camping fee. How do the promoters propose to "leave no child behind"?

VII.

Stilwill "said other plans were more solid, including providing training in teaching methods to current and aspiring science teachers."

Well, he's right about that.

In fact, the very same day's papers headlined, "UI Gets $450,000 Grant for Training Teachers," The Gazette, April 21, 2005, p. B1 ("The University of Iowa has received a $450,000, three-year grant to train about 50 elementary school teachers in science and mathematics education.") The story makes no mention of the necessity (or even the availability) of a rain forest for this purpose, nor that the rain forest project was in anyway involved in obtaining this grant. And why should a rain forest be a part of it?

Do we need more and better trained teachers of math and science? Absolutely. But does that mean we need a $180 million structure to teach biology, and another for physics, and another for chemistry? Of course not.

It is not necessary to machete one's way to class through a rain forest every day to learn the latest theories and methods regarding science education. In fact, the trees -- not to mention the tourists -- would just get in the way.

We've been training science teachers in buildings at the University of Iowa's College of Education for years, and I suspect those are the facilities that will be used for this next batch of 50.

To the extent their training would benefit from hands-on time in nature, there's plenty of it in Iowa City, and much more within a few minutes drive from town. And those local varieties of nature are likely to be much more useful to those teachers' future teaching challenges in communities without $180 million, enclosed, artificial rain forests.

To the extent a rain forest is essential to teachers' training, or their students' education (which I doubt), it would be cheaper to fly all of them to real rain forests than to build and operate an artificial one in Coralville, Iowa.

VIII.

Then there is what Pracht reports as "A virtual reality trip to the center of a molecule or the surface of the sun." Stilwill is reported to have referred to "a virtual reality space."

It is not clear what relationship this has to a rain forest in Coralville. There is an enormous amount of virtual reality science material in general, and rain forest-related material in particular, already available on the Web, including Web cams in real rain forests, and curricular material about rain forests available online at no charge. (I just "Googled" on "rain forest" and was delivered 1,570,000 suggested Web sites in 0.38 seconds. "Rain forest" plus "Web cams" produces 994 hits.) Why and how will the rain forest promoters be able to make such a substantial marginal improvement to this body of teaching material that it is worth doing?

Ted Stilwill is an able professional. Give him the time to flesh out the details of all the possibilities, and realistic prospects for a continuing flow of all the money he would need to carry them out, and a way to bring along the "Education Establishment," and I have no doubt he would create something worthwhile.

But, at this point in time (April 21, 2005) I don't see that his partners in this venture are in a position to offer him any of the above, let alone all of it.