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The Register's Rain Forest Endorsement: A Summary Response

Nicholas Johnson

April 26, 2005

See also, Register Endorses Rain Forest, Bloggers Not Impressed

[Note: Detailed support for each of the assertions in this comment can be found in the writings of Nicholas Johnson and others in, or linked from,]

The Des Moines Register supports the proposed Coralville rain forest. Editorial, "Listen to Younger Iowans," Des Moines Register, March 12, 2004; Editorial, "Fund the Unexpected, the Iowa Rain Forest," Des Moines Register, April 25, 2005.

In 2004 the editorial board's analysis consisted primarily of "Iowa needs more big thinking. This rain forest is big thinking." and "economic development is spurred" by these "investments that will make Iowa a better place to live for many years to come."

By 2005 the analysis hadn't changed much. "A rain forest in Iowa? It's not as crazy-sounding as it once was, . . . Sometimes the unexpected is irresistible."

The passage of another year has caused most observers -- including some restive Coralville City Council members and frustrated editorial writers at The Gazette -- to believe the project is now, if anything, even more crazy-sounding than it once was.

Here, in summary, are some of the reasons why.

1. Focus. One more year and we (and they) still don't know what they are talking about. The promoters say the emphasis is education, and then drop "education" from the project's name the same month they sign on Iowa's former director of the Department of Education. An advisory committee member's newspaper column says it is a "misconception" to think of it as a tourist attraction (she said it was primarily designed to support scientific research and education), but promoters continue to talk about an average 1.3 million visitors a year.

As blogger State 29 put it, ""It's a floor wax. It's a dessert topping. It's an aquarium. It's an IMAX. It's a tourist attraction. It's an educational trainer center for science teachers. It's whatever they want it to be . . .."

So far as the public's been told, what started out as "Iowa Child" still has no finally agreed upon and formally adopted name.

How can anyone be in favor of (or oppose, for that matter) something that is little more than an imaginative array of possible ideas, many of which are inconsistent with each other?

2. Details. One more year and we still don't have the construction, programmatic, staffing or operating details of any of the many proffered "potential" programs. Thus, even if one were to be picked, and a focus found, there would still be no way of evaluating whether it makes any realistic sense.

3. Costs. One more year and we still don't know what the costs and budgets are. Promoters talk of $180 million. What's the basis for that figure? What does it cover -- construction only, pre-opening promotional costs, first year's operation, payments to teachers, subsidies for low-income school children? They've sometimes talked of a number of employees that equals or exceeds, for example, what the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha uses to run nine major attractions including a rain forest. What positions do they have in mind? How many persons in each? And at what pay levels for each?

Cost overruns are standard procedure, especially in one-of-a-kind projects like the rain forest. From Boston's multi-billion-dollar "big dig" to Iowa City's Englert renovation ($1 million budget, $5 million cost) overruns of five times original expectation are not uncommon. Whatever the overruns may be, or any other initial shortfall, how will they be paid for?

4. Show me the money. One more year and we still don't see an additional dime of financing. What is sometimes called "the elephant in the rain forest" is that even if the $180 million is an accurate figure, based on detailed plans, that will cover all costs including overruns, they don't have it. Some very able (and pricey) fundraisers have logged a lot of hours to no avail; not a single wealthy individual, granting authority, government agency, corporation or foundation has been willing to add a dime to the kitty. Aside from what their reluctance might suggest about the wisdom of our undertaking this project, the bottom line is that the bottom line doesn't have a large enough number on it.

5. Sustaining cash flow. As serious as is a $90 million shortfall in what is represented to be a $180 million construction project pales in comparison to operating cost problems. Where one looks for operating funds varies, of course, with what the project will ultimately turn out to be. Financing a scientific research center requires either that the Iowa Legislature and Board of Regents take over its funding as, perhaps, a unit of the University of Iowa, or that a perpetual stream of grants be found. Financing a teacher training facility, or school, requires yet another form of financing. But since the project's off-again-on-again mission as a tourist attraction seems to be the most common suggestion, that requires yet a third equation for calculating operating costs and revenues.

When it comes to attendance we are, once again, one more year down the road and we still don't have an independent economist's review of promoters' optimistic attendance figures. The nation is littered with the economic collapse of hometown boosters' dreams of tourism. A recent Brookings study documents that while the amount of convention center space has expanded by 50% the decline in the number of conventions, and attendees, continues. The addition of adjacent hotels has often simply increased the losses already suffered from the convention centers. The results have often been similar for sports arenas and stadiums, aquariums, and a variety of tourist attractions. Based on a variety of experience and studies there is every reason to be skeptical of the promoters projections of 1.3 million visitors a year.

In short, the problems with the rain forest do not lie with the dreams, the "potential," the possibilities (or at least not all of them). Would it be wonderful to have a world class facility filled with the world's best scientists? Sure. If a tourist attraction could attract significant numbers of visitors from out of state who would leave their money in Iowa (rather than just draw Iowans' discretionary income from one Iowa venue to another) could that make a contribution to the state's economy? Of course.

No, the problems lie with those -- including promoters, officials, public, journalists, and yes, editorial writers -- who focus only on the dreams, while ignoring the very serious and substantial problems associated with tethering those dreams to reality. It borders on the irresponsible to whip up public and official enthusiasm, like a scene out of "The Music Man," for a proposal that has not been well thought out and could produce devastating consequences for a community, and even a state's economy, were it to fail.

Surely all of these reasons, taken together, can provide some indication of why one might wish to question the Register's conclusion, one year later, that a rain forest in Coralville, Iowa, is "not as crazy-sounding as it once was."