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If They Build It Maybe They'll Come

Will Rainforest "Sizzle" --  or "Fizzle"?

Rene Sanchez

Minneapolis Star Tribune

June 5, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 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 Star Tribune. The Gazette.]

CORALVILLE, IOWA -- Once the wild monkeys get here, and the tropical trees and plants, Nancy Quellhorst figures all the doubts and snickers she hears now will stop.

"I get questions every day," she said. "People don't know what to expect."

That's because she is trying to create a rainforest.

On the Iowa prairie.

It's no joke. In the next few years, this small town near Iowa City could become the incongruous home of the world's largest enclosed rainforest, spread over 4.5 acres and soaring nearly 20 stories high, with a curving translucent dome designed to shed snow and walls built to withstand tornadoes.

It would look like a giant caterpillar. And the bold vision behind it is being billed as Iowa's salvation.

Some of the state's most prominent civic and political leaders are backing the project, which has received $50 million in federal funding. Iowa, they say, can no longer count on cornfields to power its economy and keep young residents from leaving. It needs tour buses.

"We have to rethink our future," said Ted Stilwill, a former Iowa education secretary who is part of the team developing the rainforest. "This feels a little outrageous -- but that's exactly what we have to do."

Stilwill added: "When young people look around this state, they don't see imagination."

"This idea," said Quellhorst, the director of operations for the rainforest, "has sizzle."

But questions still surround the project, which has been in the works for years but not yet broken ground. Debate about it is flaring up because the nonprofit foundation preparing to build the rainforest is now asking the state for $20 million.

Some skeptics contend that expense would be risky, even foolish, for Iowa. They say an out-of-place ecosystem is unlikely to beckon big crowds from the Midwest and beyond to Coralville, especially in winter.

"Iowa has gotten too caught up in the 'Field of Dreams' movie -- that 'if you build it, they will come' mentality," said Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor who has questioned the project. "The attendance projections are totally unrealistic. Coralville ain't Las Vegas."

A solid plan

Much of the plan for the rainforest is in place. It would be built on mostly vacant, weedy industrial lots that Coralville owns, next to Interstate Hwy. 80 and a hotel and conference center already under construction.

The rainforest would be part of a 30-acre interactive science center featuring nature trails, an aquarium and theater, and multimedia exhibits on the environment. It would house towering tropical trees and an array of exotic animal and plant species. It also would rely on clean and renewable sources of energy, such as sunlight, and use cutting-edge technologies to capture and conserve water. Admission would be about $15.

Advocates of the project, who include former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, say it would be an extraordinary resource for teaching students about science -- and a godsend for Iowa's struggling economy.

They expect the rainforest to draw more than 1 million visitors a year. They also say it would pump $187 million a year into the state economy, in part by creating 300 permanent jobs and sparking a need for another 2,000 around eastern Iowa. They are hoping to open in 2008.

"I think it will definitely happen," said Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, "and it will have tremendous benefits for the state."

Ted Townsend, a wealthy Des Moines businessman and founder of the Iowa Child Institute, first proposed building an indoor rainforest in the state nearly a decade ago. He has donated $10 million to the cause.

His plan is now modeled after an endeavor called the Eden Project, a domed and sprawling nature conservancy in England that includes an indoor rainforest. It opened four years ago in Cornwall and is attracting more than 1 million visitors annually.

The campaign to build an indoor rainforest in Coralville gained momentum last year when Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley stitched $50 million into the federal budget to help pay for it. Some public-interest groups derided that move as an example of reckless congressional spending and began calling the project "Iowa's Pork Forest."

Grassley remains a staunch supporter of the rainforest. "He believes this is a great opportunity for Iowa to diversify its economy," said Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for the senator.

The project received another boost this spring when the Des Moines Register endorsed it in an editorial, saying, "Sometimes the unexpected is irresistible."

Points in its favor

David Oman, the rainforest's executive director, said he believes the project will succeed partly because of its location. About 45,000 vehicles a day travel past the proposed site along I-80, he said. The rainforest would be just a few miles from the University of Iowa and less than a day's drive from Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and the Twin Cities.

He sounds weary of skeptics. "People questioned Mount Rushmore. People questioned the Eiffel Tower," Oman exclaimed. "We spend a lot of time and money in the heartland going elsewhere to look at people's dreams. That has to change."

But even some supporters of the rainforest say they are getting restless about how long it is taking to develop the project.

"I'd love to see it happen," said Tom Gill, a City Council member in Coralville, which has about 15,000 residents. "But we've never really had a clear picture of the finances. And the ideas about what it's going to be always seem to be evolving."

Project officials appear to have all the land they need. Fausett said that Coralville is committed to donating several large tracts and improving the infrastructure around them.

But rainforest backers, who already have scaled down their original vision, are still raising money. They say they have nearly $100 million but may need as much as $80 million more. Quellhorst said she is in talks with an array of potential corporate partners.

The rainforest also could face competition from a smaller science center that opened last month in Des Moines. The center has interactive exhibits and an IMAX theater.

A future eyesore?

Critics of the rainforest say they fear the state could be stuck with a huge highway eyesore if visitors do not come in droves.

Johnson, the law professor, said that expecting well over a million people a year to pay $15 each to visit a rainforest in a small Iowa town hours from the kind of big-city amenities tourists crave is wildly optimistic. Johnson also contends that many of the 45,000 vehicles that pass the proposed site daily are commercial trucks in a hurry.

"This could become a monument to our stupidity," he said.

Stilwill said he is not surprised to hear such doubts, even though three consulting firms that examined the project in separate studies reached the same conclusion on how many visitors it would attract a year. "There's a kind of 'Prairie Home Companion' view of life in the Midwest that's humble," he said. "So whenever you try to do something unusual, skepticism is the first reaction you get."

Even if they raise all the money they need, advocates of the rainforest will have to wrestle with other strange and difficult challenges before it opens.

To name one: getting Amazonian trees planted in Iowa.

The plan, Quellhorst said, is to buy them from tree farms in Florida and bring them by barge up the Mississippi River.

She also will have to round up scores of animal and plant species that flourish in a rainforest -- without plucking them from existing rainforests.

"There's so much detail involved in this, you wouldn't believe it," Quellhorst said.

But she expressed confidence that the many tasks ahead will be completed. And that when the rainforest gets built in Coralville, more than enough people will come.

Even in winter.

"Because it's going to be warm inside," Quellhorst said.