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We've Got Trouble With a Capital "P"
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion
November 18, 2003
p. 13A

As Harold Hill, the “Music Man,” once warned Iowans,
“Oh, yes we got lots and lots a' trouble
Right here in River City
Trouble with a capital ‘T’
And that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”
Hill was talking about a pool table. Our River City pool is a million-gallon aquarium in a four-acre tropical rain forest.

Originally called “Iowa Child” -- a bizarre if beguiling name for a hotel, shops and rain forest having nothing to do with Iowa and little to do with children -- it’s now the “Iowa Environmental/Education Project.”

After two years of intense fundraising, the backers of this dream of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend have yet to raise one dollar. The project has been rejected by Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

Yet for unfathomable reasons the city councils of Coralville and Iowa City appear to like it. Iowa’s Sen. Charles Grassley wants federal taxpayers to contribute $70 million. Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Jim Leach agree.

Of course, local taxpayers will also pay.

When backers offer investors that federal money the “investment” becomes attractive. But the projected number of out-of-state investors, like those owning gambling casinos, just increase the giant sucking sound as profits leave Iowa. Ditto for jobs for out-of-state workers.

If it smells like pork . . .
I’ve always thought Democrats’ “tax and spend” more sustainable public finance than Republicans’ “borrow and spend.” But even Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert calls it a “pork project.” He’s right. It does have something of the aroma of a hog lot.

The problems involve both process and substance.

Elected officials and backers are trying to sneak into town, under cover of darkness, a questionable project larger than a herd of white elephants and  nearly six times costlier than the recently approved school bond issue. This paper reported the final deal was only hours or days away – with no meaningful citizen discussion or consensus.

The proponents have yet to address many of the substantive questions put to them over two years ago. Meanwhile, their project still lacks focus, is short on details, and periodically shifts its design, funding and list of “supporters.”

Tourist dollars from “attractions” are fickle. Examples of the many disappointments include Biosphere II, the aquariums in New Jersey and Flint, Mich., and northeast Iowa’s “Silos and Smoke Stacks.” Where’s the hard data that this one’s different?

What’s the admission fee? Is the facility only for Iowa’s Wealthy Child, or will low income children be subsidized? If so, by whom? What will the jobs pay? What’s the adverse impact on local business?

I’m all for entrepreneurial ideas, even nutty ones, so long as (1) it’s private money, (2) no harm is done, and (3) after the inevitable bankruptcy abandoned facilities have uses. This one involves public money, causes environmental damage, and offers few alternatives for an abandoned, rotting rain forest.

Unanswered questions
When revenues slow, who keeps the animals and plants alive? Will there be public governance or oversight? More public funding?

Obviously, those owning the adjacent hotel and shops will profit from this public venture. But isn’t that like stadiums built by taxpayers for the private profit of millionaires playing games for teams owned by billionaires?

Ironically, the environmental impact of this environmental project is negative. Even with water recycling, the drain on our water table for a million-gallon aquarium and a high-humidity rain forest is scary. Care to guess at the demands on local utilities, and costs, for heating in winter and cooling in summer this 4.5-acre, 20-story open space?

Transferring plants and animals here depletes, rather than enhances, real rain forests. It also introduces unknown organisms that concern doctors.

Local public officials owe us more respect. If they won't insist on the data and answers we need, they should at least give us enough time to get them ourselves.

Meanwhile, I’d appreciate it if the backers would put my wallet back where they found it.

Reach Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa College of Law instructor, at his Web site,