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Will Rain Forest be a Boon or Boondoggle?

Compare Benefits to Costs, Risk

Nicholas Johnson

Des Moines Register

April 29, 2004

Note: The op ed, as published, omitted a number of the lines from the the text as submitted, presumably for reasons of length. Those omissions are indicated, below, by bold italics.

A rain forest in Coralville, Ia.? Citizens Against Government Waste gave Senator Charles Grassley its "Soak the Taxpayers Award" for the $50 million from federal taxpayers. It calls the project "the poster child of pork."

National humor columnist Dave Barry savaged the forest (Register, Feb. 16). Some local critics think it absurd "to put a rain forest in a cornfield."

Few dispute that Iowans need "vision" and to "think big." The question's whether this vision is 20-20.

Put aside the ridicule. There really could be some benefits from this project. The issue is whether possible benefits exceed costs and risks.

Unfortunately, the proponents won't put on their Web site the information the public and media would need to address that question. There are plans to break ground this fall. Yet categories of unexamined issues remain -- more serious than national ridicule.

If the promoters don't have this basic information, we're in serious trouble. If they have it and are stonewalling, we're left to wonder why. Whatever the reasons, it's long past time we dig beneath their boosterism and public relations.

Why should the public care? The public should care because federal, state and local taxpayers are providing much of the $180 million construction -- and community infrastructure. If the project fails that money is lost. There aren't many alternative uses for a 4.5-acre, 20-story dome filled with a rotting rain forest and empty million-gallon aquarium. If it's kept open but can't cover costs, local governments may choose to stick taxpayers with the difference.

The nation is littered with failed "attractions" boosters thought would make their community a national tourist destination. The forest promoters' math is correct -- if 1.5 million visitors (one-half Iowa's entire population) pay $15 every year, that will gross $22.5 million. But the issue is not their math. It's the reasonableness of their undisclosed underlying data and assumptions.

All considered, the public implications of a failed rain forest, three times the size of the State Capitol building, go well beyond those of a bankrupt boutique in a shopping mall.

What if promoters can't raise the money by fall, originally budgeted at $300 million, then $225 million and now $180 million? Will the $90 million they now have leave the project undone, or fund a smaller one? Their consultants warn that smaller may mean failure.

The constantly shifting budget, design and mission make analysis difficult. It has alternatively been a tourist attraction, K-5 school, national scientists' research center, hotel, aquarium, energy-demonstration project and teacher-training facility. There's no decision on which animals and how many. Neither focus nor detail seems to have been thought through. Once Iowa Child, now Environmental/Education Project, it's still looking for a name.

Ted Townsend, who has pledged $10 million, says that "education is the primary motive." If so, where's the detailed program? When school districts can't afford buses for students' field trips, where's the "education" money coming from?

There's little transparency on finance generally. There are no public, detailed construction or operating budgets. Given the project's innovations, as every homeowner knows, cost overruns are likely. No revelation of campaign contributions that may have played a role. No current accounting details, such as the near $700,000 paid the architect as of 2002.

Fifty-foot trees barged from Florida will be under a near-200-foot ceiling. Will they be potted plants high atop plastic tree trunks, as Townsend once proposed? Or will it be empty space? Some varieties take 100 years to reach full height. Some trees in indoor rain forests fall over. Another forest was built with no way to trim treetops.

Nor do we have details about the jobs promised to average $30,000 annually. How many, in what categories, paying what salaries and benefits? Will construction workers have a project labor agreement?

The adverse environmental impacts aren't revealed. Some water recycling and energy conservation are promised. So why has an anonymous power company pledged $10 million? Could it be related to Townsend once predicting electric and gas bills of $3.9 million, 15 percent of the annual budget? How might those increased electric and gas demands affect home- owners' rates? How much will the local water table be depleted?

To make this project successful, borrowing from the country song, "We've got a long way to go and a short time to get there." We might make it still. But Until the promoters are willing to provide the media and public with a roadmap, destination, credit card and gas gauge, our odds aren't very good.

NICHOLAS JOHNSON teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and has more on this project at