Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Coralville Rain Forest Web Site

Unfocused and Unfunded, Rain Forest Inspires Mostly Questions

Nicholas Johnson

Des Moines Register

June 5, 2005

Last year the Register supported the proposed Coralville rain forest because "Iowa needs more big thinking" ("Listen to Younger Iowans," March 12, 2004). This year it was because "it's not as crazy-sounding as it once was" ("Fund the Unexpected," April 25, 2005). Really?

We benefit from "big thinking." No dream is "crazy." But both require realistic business plans.

One more year and "the elephant in the rain forest" remains. Promoters are still $90 million short on a $180 million project. Not a single dime has been added to the kitty by wealthy individuals, granting authorities, government agencies, corporations or foundations.

One more year and we still don't know what they're talking about. 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." (Once "Iowa Child," nine years later they still haven't agreed on a name.)

One more year and we still don't have construction, programmatic, staffing or operating details. Even if a focus could be found, there's no way to evaluate its feasibility.

One more year and we still don't know costs and budgets. What does the $180 million include? Construction only? Plants and animals? Pre-opening promotion? Subsidies for low-income children?

Cost overruns five times budget are not uncommon for one-of-a-kind projects. Where will that money come from?

Whether tourist attraction, research center or something else, finding perpetual operating funds is an even greater challenge.

"Civic journalism" is one thing. The Register does it well. Whipping up public and official enthusiasm for an ill-defined, unfunded dream, still "as crazy-sounding as it once was," is another.

-Nicholas Johnson,
Iowa City.