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Caution: Rain forest ahead

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 9, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by 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 Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

Monday's editorial ("Riverside's 15 minutes of fame continues") warned Riverside, "whether to ante up public money for Earthpark (is) a bet we would caution any municipality against making."

It's good advice. Ten years into the project, long-unanswered questions remain. It's yet to raise a dime toward what was once its $300 million budget. It's now $155 million; but as its scope shrinks, so does its ability to attract tourists. And we've never been told what these numbers do and don't cover.

U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley's $50 million gift is conditioned on a $50 million match that's nowhere in sight.

Of the claimed 16 possible Iowa cities, 14 have said "No, thank you." Only Pella and Riverside remain.

The $25 million in local money demanded of each, said to have been "met or exceeded," is hard to find in either Riverside's actual numbers or CEO David Oman's bank account.

There's still no focus -- a choice among the promoters' options of tourist attraction, research center and teacher training. We've yet to see detailed business, construction or operating plans and budgets.

Promoters reassure Riverside there's no risk because "city money would not be used" -- a characterization that is, most charitably, misleading. There are many risks; some are financial.

If the rain forest gets the hotel/motel tax, then the city can't use it.

An $8 million rain forest grant from the casino's Foundation robs local projects, like the library, of promised funds.

The city will pay for rain forest roads, water and sewer lines.

A massive aquarium and rain forest drain city water supplies.

A non-profit rain forest won't pay property taxes.

Realism also requires some thought be given to alternative scenarios when, as many predict, the rain forest doesn't attract enough money to maintain a first class attraction:
It may remain vacant, a rotting rain forest and drained aquarium smelling of dead fish -- a monument to the triumph of boosterism over caution.

It may be torn down -- probably at city expense.

It may be run with a scaled-down budget and many closed exhibits, with the resulting downward spiral of quality, attendance, and income. Or,

To avoid the embarrassment of these unattractive alternatives, the city may choose to provide a perpetual rain forest subsidy to keep it open.

Given the rain forest's history, risks and opportunity costs, to say that "city money would not be used" is a whopper worthy of the stand-up comics soon to be entertaining at the casino.

Hopefully, Riverside will take the P-C's advice.
Nicholas Johnson teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains and