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Coralville Project Can't Match Up to Omaha's Zoo

"Vision is the easy part. The challenge is in balancing the books."

Nicholas Johnson

Des Moines Register

July 17, 2004

Former Register columnist Donald Kaul once proposed for Iowa's slogan, "Warmer than Minnesota, more fun than Nebraska."

It didn't fit on our license plates.

We have other ways to keep our "fun state" reputation. That's what Vision Iowa is for -- and Coralville's rain forest. But Nebraska has lessons for both.

Creative ideas aren't enough. "Vision" is easy. The challenge is balancing the books. The country is littered with bankrupt attractions that couldn't control costs or meet optimistic projections.

So forget the Coralville boosters' hype. What makes a rain forest financially viable?

The best model is the result of a 13-year-old boy's vision. Lee Simmons, like many his age, was fascinated with snakes. Fascination grew into love of all animals, and a specific teenager's goal: zoo director. Today he's Dr. Simmons, in his 34th year as director of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.

This extraordinarily gifted and modest man lives by simple rules. Raise capital from local donors, not government. Don't borrow; pay as you go. Build on time and under budget. Minimize executive positions. Emphasize entertainment. Stick with successful teams. Practice hands on and "MBWA" (management by walking around).

There are similarities between his Lied Jungle and Coralville's plan. Both, at opening, are "the world's largest," non-profits, built without debt. Both have an aquarium, gardens and IMAX, are close to I-80 and need more than a million visitors annually.

But the differences are stark.

Omaha's forest is but one of numerous spectacular attractions in what Reader's Digest calls the country's best zoo. Its attendance ranks first in the nation as percentage of local population. Each Omaha attraction was the world's biggest, first or most unique when built: rain forest, aviary, desert dome, nocturnal area. The list goes on. One could go to the 130-acre site just to see the rain forest, but there's so much more.

Coralville's primary attraction will be a 4.5-acre rain forest.

Omaha has 25 times Coralville's population, one-third more than Johnson and Linn counties combined. Its zoo began in 1895 with Buffalo Bill's gift of two bison calves. Since becoming the Henry Doorly Zoo in 1966, attendance has steadily grown.

Notwithstanding Omaha's superior market, history, reputation and attractions, Coralville's boosters project immediately exceeding Doorly's gate.

Botanic gardens have admirers, zoos have attendance. Omaha's forest emphasizes animals. Coralville recently decided to have animals, but not which or how many.

Coralville's forest income must sustain all administrative costs. Omaha spreads costs over multiple attractions -- with fewer permanent staff than Coralville promises. Omaha's staff includes dozens of experienced professionals. Coralville has two, both publicist-administrators, and outsources everything else.

Omaha's adult admission, for numerous attractions, is $9.75. Coralville will charge $15 for a rain forest.

Coralville's estimated construction cost: $180 million. Lied Jungle cost $15 million.

Simmons has run Omaha on balanced budgets every year since 1970. Coralville has no track record, business plan, detailed construction or operating budgets, and independent economists question its projections.

Coralville hopes for federal money for research. Omaha abandoned that hope. Yet, Simmons says, "This research needs to be done." So he staffs a world-class research center on premises and 39 research projects around the world from operating revenues.

Much of Omaha's cash flow comes from concessions only a 130-acre facility makes possible: train and tram rides, children's carrousel, food kiosks and restaurant. Coralville's concessions are limited.

Coralville's capital mostly comes from federal, state and local taxpayers. And it's $90 million short. Not a single local benefactor has contributed. More than half of Omaha's attendance comes from "members." And they don't just visit. They finance its zoo projects -- before construction begins. Half the Desert Dome's $31.5 million came from one donor.

Omaha builds with architects, engineers and contractors who've worked together for decades. Coralville's first-time effort risks cost overruns.

Can Iowa be more fun than Nebraska? Only if our capacity for fiscal reality is the equal of our capacity for bold vision.

NICHOLAS JOHNSON teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.