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Community Problem Solving

Nicholas Johnson Comments

The Exchange
Iowa Public Radio

Host: Ben Kieffer; Guest Tim Boyle

January 4, 2007

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

Ben Kieffer:  The number to call to get in on the end of this conversation, the final ten minutes of this conversation, is 1-866-780-9100.  Whatís happening in your community that perhaps in this conversation rings a bell with you?  Toll free number: 1-866-780-9100.  Email:  Nick has been waiting in Iowa City.  Hi, Nick, are you still there?

Nicholas Johnson: I am, and I thank you, and I thank your guests.

These process questions are so fundamental and so often ignored, so I thank you too, Ben, for making the discussion possible.  But having said that, I now have a substantive question.

What do we do with the cheerleaders?  How do we get the public and the public officials and the media to look at the cold hard facts?  And the example Iíll use is the Iowa Rainforest.

Vilsack has now said that the project is nuts.  That was obvious to every independent economist I ever talked to.  There was no basic business plan, theyíve not been able to raise a dime in ten years, and yet you could not find a local city council member, member of the Iowa legislature, or a newspaper's editorial board that would sit down and apply basic Business School 101.  Why donít you have a business plan? What about the cash flow?  Where do you think a million and a half visitors are going to come from in a state where most attractions like this get between fifty and one hundred thousand visitors a year?

How can you make a community focus on the business realities when public money is involved? How can you get them to apply the kind of standards that any banker would use if theyíd come in and asked for a loan instead of tax-payerís money?

Ben Kieffer:  Nick, I want to thank you for calling in.  Our listeners donít know, so I want to make sure people know who you are.  Nick Johnson is a University of Iowa professor of law and formerly FCC Commissioner for the United States.  And Nick, thank you for that great question.  Nick, youíve had a big campaign against the Rain Forest Project here in Iowa, and now it seems the tide has turned against the Rain Forest.  But letís get an answer to your question.  There was an overwhelming drive to get this thing done.

Tim Boyle:  Nick Johnson. Wow.  Thatís tremendous.  Keep fighting the good fight, sir.

Nick Johnson: Thank you.  Let me add, if anybodyís actually interested in that particular issue, as well as the UI presidential search, check out, where I have thousands of screens of stuff about rain forests and other matters.

Ben Kieffer:  Okay, letís get an answer to your question, Nick.  This particular example, any observations from our panelists today?

Tim Boyle: Well, first, my ideaís always been, rather than a pretend rain forest, why donít we create a real natural prairie, because thatís what actually is indigenous to Iowa.  But thatís another issue.

I do think heís touched upon, for lack of a better term, our Iowa-ness, in that dichotomy between, you know, ďBy golly, we need a big idea, a grand idea," and then you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, and then, ďWell, thatís not gonna work because of this and thatís not gonna work because of that."  At some point you need to find that idea that is dramatic enough and may be crazy enough, but ultimately turns out to be stimulating.

The Golden Gate Bridge; if youíd looked at that pragmatically, an engineer would have said, ďFor crying out loud, you canít build a bridge across the mouth of San Francisco Bay.  It wonít stand up.Ē  Well, sure enough, they did, and now itís a landmark.

I was in a discussion with an architectural firm from Minneapolis thatís reviewing the situation in Cedar Rapids and they said theyíve never seen a community with so many plans.  Weíre just planned within an inch of our lives.

Now weíve got to act.  My line has become, "Rome wasnít built in a day, but it was built."  Eventually they got down to it.  But thatís the debate.  What is too outrageous and outlandish? And then, what is dramatic and exciting?

Ben Kieffer:  I wanted to end our conversation -- we have just a few more minutes here.  Please, Nick Johnson, please stay on the line. -- I wanted to throw this out for some last comments here related to many of the things weíre talking about here.

Some research from the Kittering Foundation also identified another challenge. That research suggests that many of todayís citizens are just simply not engaged in the collective work of community problem-solving.  What is the key to engagement, to enthusiasm in civic activism?