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Iowa Child: Question About Questions

Nicholas Johnson's Exchange With

Host Al Kern, and guest David Oman, Iowa Child's Chief Administrator

"Talk of Iowa"
Iowa City, Iowa

January 26, 2004

Al Kern [AK]:  David, I had an email here from Nick in Iowa City, which I was going to get to after the break, but I believe Nick is on the line, is one of the calls waiting, and I do want to get to him right away, so Iím going to do that right now.

Nick, thanks for joining us by phone.  Sorry we didnít get to your email sooner, but I know you have questions, so fire away.

Nicholas Johnson [NJ]:  Iíve got questions about questions.

Now I admire the work that your guest did on the Governorís Committee, and I certainly admire anyone who is willing to give away his own money to a worthy cause [Iowa Child's founder, Ted Townsend], but Iíve been frustrated.

I just looked on the Web to see when I wrote this thing, it was back actually three years ago, in January 2001. Iíve been asking questions since then to which I canít get answers.

So I donít have a specific question, so much as a question about the questions. We have a lot of folks in the local community who are not naysayers and not obstructionists of progress, but who feel that this thing can have an enormous downside impact on taxpayers, and on the physical arrangements in Iowa City and Coralville area.

Iíve put questions about the financial viability, the financial implications for taxpayers as well as others, the fact that the plans keep changing and as soon as you track something down and find something wrong with it, next thing you know theyíve changed the plan again.

Certainly the costs have changed constantly over time.

Theyíve said they had the support of individuals and you go to those individuals and they say, "No, we donít support it. We just went to a briefing on it."

Thereís been a lack of focus in what they are trying to do.  At one point they were trying to create a school inside there until they found out you had to be a school district.

Thereís been a lot of hype having to do with this.

It looks like thereís a substantial amount of public funding of what is going to be private profit, if not in the rain forest, at least in the adjacent hotel and restaurant.

There are questions about governance. Who makes the decisions if the thing doesn't pan out and the rain forest starts to rot?  Are taxpayers going to have to pick that up?

And we have got serious environmental concerns that were raised at that time and since.

There are real questions about whether or not the local economic impact is going to be as positive as has been represented.

Now, that may sound like I object to it.  But, what I object to is that I canít get answers to these questions.

I've spent my life promoting innovative ideas through what has been called "the bozone layer" -- that's the fog that surrounds people who are too dense to appreciate creative new ideas.  So I sympathize with that.

But gol darn it, look at this like a local banker. Would you loan a dime for whatís been proposed here all along?

Most recently, they talk about receiving $50 million [the recent congressional grant], now heís saying they have $90 million lined up.

AK:   Nick, hang on now.

NJ:  What kind of a local process is this, that three years after Iíve posed these questions, Iíve looked for the answers on the Web site, Iíve gone to individuals connected with the project, and nobody will give me any straight answers. Yet weíre supposed to be supporting this thing or, as it appears, we are going to just be totally excluded by the Coralville government and by the project manager.

AK: OK, a lot of good points.  Letís let David address those.  David..

David Oman [DO]:  Well, Al, I will try to take them one at a time.  First of all, I donít know who Nick is.  Iíve never heard from him.  Any questions that you have, I hope you would call me.  I have answers to almost every one of these questions.  Let me try to do this briskly, Al, because we could probably fill up the rest of the hour.

AK: I know, and we have four other callers.

DO: All right, let me just get it quickly.

We have a very thoughtful group of statewide leaders who are on our board of directors.  Weíre constituted as a not-for-profit. Our chairman is former Governor Ray.  We have business leaders from Cedar Rapids, from across the state, we have environmentalists like Dr. David Campbell of Grinnell who is a professor of  biology, one of the leaders in our country.  We have Dr. Daryl Smith at the University of Northern Iowa, one of the premier prairie experts in our state.  We have a number of educators Ė the head of Iowa State Extension, the assistant school superintendent in Cedar Rapids, President Skorton at the University.

NJ: But do you deny that you have represented that you had the support of individuals who did not, in fact, support the project?

AK: OK, Nick

DO: Let me go ahead.

The point is simply this, that weíve got leading business people, leading conservationists, leading educators, leaders from agriculture, and people from organized labor.  Itís pretty rare that you see those interests agree on an idea or a project.  Those people have agreed on this and they have reviewed the numbers constantly.

Nickís question was that the projectís changing and the numbers are changing.  Thatís true, weíre bringing the cost down.  I mentioned that in the first half of the program.  When I started it was close to $300 million and I came in and thought the thing was out of control and needed a lot of discipline and thatís exactly what weíve done.

And I met with educators at the time, for instance the state superintendent, and concluded pretty readily that it was not prudent to have a working school in the facility that would have two or three thousand visitors a day with a couple hundred kids in there.  So thatís why the school isnít in there.

At one time this had a hotel and conference center, it made no sense to do that when the City of Coralville was planning to do their own facility next door.

So, weíve tried to bring some very good, thoughtful business acumen to this project.  I think weíve made it better.  Iíve had probably 70 meetings, Nick, in the Iowa City area with people on campus, off campus and in the community, both Iowa City and Coralville and itís because of those meetings and some very pointed questions that I was asked that we have made this project better.  It isnít all rain forest, there are multiple environmental elements as I have mentioned before.  Itís a far better project because of the input that weíve had from the community and if youíd like to call me, or email me, I would be happy to dig into this with you, too.  If you are willing to be constructive, I think you could help us make it an even better project.

AK: David, if you would, give us a phone number where folks can reach you and an email address;

DO: The telephone for the project is 515-243-9300 and Iíll give you my email, personally. I may regret this, but it's  We we want people to know the information about the project.  We think itís a much fitter, a much more rationalized project that it was a few years ago.  And with the federal funding that was secured last week, somethingís going to get built.  Weíre going to build a green building, weíre going to build an environmental project.  And I think, Al, to pivot on whatís important for this conversation and others that will occur in the weeks ahead, we want it to be the best possible environmental project it can be. We want it to be sustainable.  All of the projections show that it runs in the black and we want to confirm that.  We have to do that.  The Federal Government is going to insist that we build a project that makes sense.  We invite peopleís input.

AK:  Okay, Nick, thanks for calling.  I hope you two are able to get together by phone and by email and hopefully get some of these questions that are on your mind, and I know you keep raising questions and thatís a good thing.  I hope Davidís able to answer some of those for you.

NJ: Iím not the only one whoís been raising them for three years.

AK: I know that.  Thanks for calling.  We appreciate it.

NJ: Thank you, David.

AK: Mark in Tiffin is on line one.  Mark, thanks for waiting.  Welcome to the program.

Mark: Thank you.  Iím a builder and Iím right now standing in Tiffin looking out my window and itís 24 degrees and snowing and the last time I was at a rain forest we didnít have this kind of weather.  You just touched on my question and that is, is this project self-supporting?  You said, I think, 400 jobs would be involved?

DO: Three to four hundred, yes.

Mark: Three to four hundred jobs, plus educators.

DO: Including educators.

Mark: Well, if you had 400 jobs and you paid them $20,000 a year -- you couldnít get me to work for you for that -- thatís $8 million a year just in cash outlay for people.  And then I just heat 3500 square feet and I donít like my heating bill.  I canít imagine heating five acres Ė especially to the temperature that a rain forest needs to be brought up to Ė I suspect the building would be designed to have solar heating or whatever, but that wouldnít do any good today.  We have trouble keeping up the Unidome, we have trouble keeping up the U of I Practice Facility and I donít know what your structure is going to be, glass or solid or a bubble.  So, my question is, whereís the money coming from?  Because you are spending $8 million dollars a year just to get people to work there, and that $50 million dollar grant from the government would only run it for six or seven years, $90 million would run it for ten years.  Is it going to be self-supporting?