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Rain Forest Dreams and Deficits

[The Gazette headline: "Bold Thinking Requires Focus to Match Potential"]

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette

Sunday, January 9, 2005, p. 12A

A Gazette editorial says, “For our money, we like the risk and potential reward of The Environmental Project” (“Reversing Iowa Stagnation,” Dec. 23).

How can you know?

“For our money”? Based on the promoters' revelations, neither the Gazette, nor any other local individual or institution, has contributed any money to this project.

Responsible evaluation of the proposed $180 million indoor rain forest in Coralville requires picking through the public relations boosterism in search of the pros and cons on eight separate issues.

1. Ridicule. The project is ridiculed by many, from Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert to syndicated humor columnist Dave Berry. Critics say it’s ludicrous to put rain forests in corn fields. I’m pragmatic. If it works, who cares?

2. Better uses for money. It’s not every Iowan’s top priority among uses for  $180 million. No matter. They’re too late. Sen. Chuck Grassley provided the $50 million of federal money can’t be used for anything else.

3. Bold ideas. Your editorial says this is “the boldest idea in decades.” No argument there. David Oman, Ted Townsend, Robert Ray, Ted Stillwell, and the other board members [Note: The Gazette omitted the following fact from its editorial, and words from this response: "including your publisher, Joe Hladky,"] should be commended for their example. Iowa needs more like them.

So far, so good. But read on.

4. Potential. The editorial notes the project’s “potential” to create a “world-class educational facility” and a research facility’s “potential to attract national and international recognition.”

Most published support for the project comes from the Iowa Child’s board and advisory committee members. It’s often just generalized, gossamer dreams of “potential” benefits.

It’s true that a world-class anything in Iowa will probably bring some benefits. But that’s not the issue. The issues are whether (a) the project has yet focused on which of these potentials it intends to pursue, (b) made public the precise details of what it’s talking about, and (c) how it will deliver those benefits.

5. Focus. Like the six blind men describing an elephant, the promoters’ emphasis shifts between a rain forest with animals to one without, real trees and fake trees, a K-5 school and teacher training, energy conservation projects and scientific research, amusement attraction and educational tourism.

At some point they must choose. Meanwhile, no one can possibly know whether their ultimate choice will make economic sense.

6. Budget details. Originally a $300 million project, then $240, and now $180, promoters won’t reveal what it covers. Shell construction only? Parking lots? Classrooms and IMAX? Acquisition of trees and animals? Pre-opening promotion? First year’s operations?

Without details, there’s no way to evaluate the reasonableness of the figure, or probable cost overruns. Their stonewalling erodes public confidence.

7. The elephant in this rain forest is that, nine years into the project, it’s still $90 million short of even the unspecified $180 million. Apparently nothing has been raised during the past 10 months.

8. Risks. The editorial acknowledges, “Are there risks? Sure.” The Gazette says they’re worth it. But how can you know, without itemizing them? Here are some risks.

The nation is littered with the failed projects of “bold,” well-meaning, but overly-optimistic boosters. Some economists predict a similar fate for this one.

The editorial says it will “leave people with a more positive perception of the state.” Maybe. But only if it works financially. If not, a 20-story monument to a failed, rotting rain forest only creates more ridicule and negative perceptions. Or, more likely, a perpetually subsidized additional burden for local taxpayers.

Iowa needs bold thinking. Absolutely. But until promoters provide us their focus, and the details of programs, budgets and benefits, how can anyone possibly say that they “like the risk and potential reward of The Environmental Project”?
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City is a visiting professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. His Web site at includes information about The Environmental Project and other issues.