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Time to Learn From What Works

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 20, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by Nicholas Johnson and the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the author and the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The Press-Citizen thinks "Towns Should Take it Slow with Rain Forest" (Jan. 14). Most Iowans are taking the editorial board's advice.

Rain forest promoters may still make it somehow, somewhere in Iowa. Regardless, Ted Townsend, Bob Ray and David Oman have helped open Iowans' eyes to the possibilities, and pitfalls, of such attractions.

Will we learn from their mistakes? Only if we search the Internet for the formula and details of success stories, for "what works." In Iowa: Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Adventureland, Living History Farms, Ted Townsend's Great Ape Trust. Outside Iowa: Omaha's zoo, Atlanta's aquarium, Colonial Williamsburg, Disneyland.

Focus. Like a business emphasizing its "core competency," successful ventures usually have a focus, like the Great Ape Trust. The rain forest kept shifting focus from tourist attraction to school to research facility. (As blogger State 29 put it, "It's a floor wax. It's a dessert topping. It's whatever they want it to be.")
Community-based. Successful ventures grow bottom up, like Omaha's zoo, the Englert theater renovation, and Dubuque's "Envision 2010," rather than being imposed top down like the rain forest.

Logical location. Aquariums do best near oceans; Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. The Living History Farms, or Dubuque's Mississippi museum on the banks of that great river, gain significance from their location in Iowa. A rain forest does not.

Up-front financing. Home Depot's Bernard Marcus gave $200 million for Atlanta's aquarium. Omaha's zoo and Dubuque's museum are locally funded. Neither uses the debt financing that's caused other projects' downfall. Rain forest promoters went public without money in hand, had none from Iowa City-Coralville donors, and now talk of borrowing their matching grant.

Business plans. Entrepreneurs dream of success and fear failure. Venture capitalists and loan officers avoid losses by demanding details. Even so, one-third of each year's 800,000 new businesses fail within four years. Imagine the risks when promoters play with public money instead of their own. Without rain forest focus there couldn't be business plans. Without plans there couldn't be sufficiently detailed construction and operating budgets. Without details no one could evaluate the project's practicality, and deadlines kept slipping -- for nine years.

Cost overruns. Over-runs are common. Boston's "Big Dig" ran five times budget. So did the Englert ($1 million budget, $5 million cost). The Iraq war may end up 10 times projections ($2 trillion vs. $200 billion). How would rain forest overruns have been financed? Omaha zoo projects are completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Revenue streams. Construction costs are relatively easy. Operating costs five and ten years later are the problem. Successful Iowa attractions know attendance will range from 65,000 a year (Hoover Library) to 500,000 (Adventureland), and budget realistically. Disneyland may get 10 to 15 million, Colonial Williamsburg almost one million. But such numbers are mostly limited to multi-million-population urban centers. Many failing projects start with overly optimistic attendance projections -- like the rain forest's estimated 1.3 million annual visitors.

Realistic evaluation. The rain forest's fundamental problems have been obvious for four years. So why did so many public officials and mass media continue to emphasize "the 'Wow!' and the wonderful," virtually ignoring risks and realism? A skeptical venture capitalist asks questions and is called "a smart businessperson." Why, when citizens ask the same questions about the rain forest, are they called "naysayers" who "lack vision"?

Iowa has plenty of successful attractions throughout the state. There's no reason it can't have many more. But only if we remember the lesson of the Laser Center: "build it and they will come" only works in the movies. Only if we build solid financial foundations under our dreams. Only if we give more attention to revenue streams and operating costs than construction costs.

Iowa needs bold vision. Naysaying doesn't help; but rational analysis does. And when "the emperor has no clothes" we ignore the difference at our peril.

Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains a vast rain forest Web site at