Monday, April 25, 2005

The Register Board

apparently feels the fake rainforest is a really swell idea that just needs a little more help from folks like us:

A rain forest in Iowa?

It's not as crazy-sounding as it once was, with just over half the money raised for the $180 million Environmental Project in Coralville, including a $50 million federal grant.

Wow. If I didn't know better, I'd presume from this sentence that the project had taken about $50 mill in federal money, and raised the rest from private investors. You know, the old-fashioned fundraisers? What the Register conveniently leaves out is that the rest of the $40 mill is coming from the taxpayers of Iowa, and the EP is applying for another $20 mill in grant money from us. Math isn't my strong suit, but as I see it that will make $60 mill from the people of Iowa (though some of it is in a land grant from Coralville), and $50 mill from the federal government - to which, last I looked, the people of Iowa had contributed their fair share. Amount raised from private investors to date? Zero. Zilch.

Now project developers plan to ask the state for $20 million in assistance, which would be a smart investment, both for the tourism dollars the project will draw and the education benefits it will offer.

Now how the h*ll do you know that? I'm sorry, but as State points out in his post, there's a significant question about some of these funny numbers they keep throwing around. These questions are being raised over and over again by legitimate, thinking individuals, have never been adequately addressed by the project leaders, and are now being completely ignored by our "watchdog" press.

Tourism dollars: as Professor Luxenburg pointed out in March, there's some issues about fuzzy math here:
The first of these concerns the highly speculative and dubious estimates of large numbers of paying visitors to the rain forest on which the running costs of the project will be dependent. David Oman, the project director, assured the audience that the estimates of an annual paid attendance of 1.5 million visitors at $15 for adults and $9 for children were from solid, respectable agencies and that the project could meet expenses even at a most conservative low estimate of 1.3 million. Will Oman and his assistants state publicly and for the record that they will not come to the taxpayers for additional funds if and when those attendance numbers do not materialize? We should not forget the vastly inflated attendance estimates that enabled such other disastrous projects as the Denver Aquarium, the Millennium Dome and the Tampa Aquarium to get the green light.

Professor Johnson compares this with the Henry Doorley Zoo in July of last year - in an editorial in the Register:
"Omaha's adult admission, for numerous attractions, is $9.75. Coralville will charge $15 for a rain forest. Coralville's estimated construction cost: $180 million. Lied Jungle cost $15 million....

Coralville's capital mostly comes from federal, state and local taxpayers. And it's $90 million short. Not a single local benefactor has contributed. More than half of Omaha's attendance comes from "members." And they don't just visit. They finance its zoo projects - before construction begins. Half the Desert Dome's $31.5 million came from one donor."

I commented on the figures back in March of last year:
We are then given a dazzling array of figures: "In Johnson County, tourist spending climbed $51 million over the past five years, to reach $199 million. Josh Schamberger, executive director of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the 3,170 tourism-supported jobs pay an average $7.50 a hour, compared to Iowa's minimum wage of $5.15 a hour. The Iowa Environmental/Education Project will create 2,900 "ripple effect" jobs statewide: 1,400 full- and part-time in Johnson County." None of which address the inherent speculativeness in the figures, but rather presuming that "if you build it, they will come."

I'm as big a WP Kinsella fan as the next person, but in this case they have no facts to back up that claim. . . .

The new study on which these people are basing their figures uses "a conservative mid-range attendance scenario of 1.3 million visitors during a stabilized year of operation." That's 3,550+ visitors per day if it were open 365 days per year, down from their prior, apparently not-so-conservative estimate of 1.5 million visitors per year, or 4100 per day. Of course, they still presume that opening year attendance will reach the 1.5 million mark.

Okay, reality check time. The non-profit Denver aquarium cost $93 million to build and opened in 1999. It attracted 1 million visitors during its first year of operation. In Denver, a freaking tourist trap. It went downhill from there, and is now belly-up. What about other rainforests? We keep hearing about the one in Cornwall, England that averages 1.8 million per year, with a local population of 500,000. How about the one in New York which only averages 576,444? Or the fact that the entire Omaha zoo only gets about 1.35 million? Their adjunct rainforest keeps no separate figures. But when the director was asked whether the rainforest itself is self-sustaining, he stifled a laugh and said: "These are very energy- and manpower-intense operations," he said, adding that annual expenses easily can rise to $20 million. "That's where some of these stand-alone aquariums run into problems, is they run into these 200-plus support staffs because they had to put all the management in place, whereas we ... already have to zoo infrastructure that supports it."

This estimate is conservative????? In what universe??? . . . ."

Okay, back to today's editorial:

The problem: There's a lot of competition for the $12 million a year in Iowa's Community Attraction and Tourism program. The 2004 Legislature committed the state to spending a total of $72 million over six years, starting last July 1. All the money for the first budget year, which ends June 30, has been awarded.

Of the $12 million for the next budget year, $5.3 million already is promised to various projects. The largest possible one-year grant is capped at $4 million.

The 13-member Vision Iowa Board, which makes the awards, could start with $4 million for The Environmental Project for next year and earmark the entire $20 million over five years.

Wait a minute: that's the problem? That's the only problem? Is that there might not be enough money in the kitty to ante up yet another $20 million for this thing?????? That the people of Iowa - who have seen court services, police protection, and school funding slashed radically over the past few years because there isn't enough money in the budget to maintain vital services - these people aren't, in your opinion, ponying up enough money toward your pet project? Can you spell offensive?

The driving philosophy of the project, the brainchild of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, is to celebrate the environment, including enhancing science education. The 4.5-acre rain forest, which would be enclosed in a 20-story-high, caterpillar-like translucent dome, could be an incredible curiosity for visitors from all over the world. Also planned for the site are a re-created wetland and prairie and a freshwater aquarium. The city of Coralville is building an adjacent hotel and conference center.

The project is expected to attract an estimated 1.1 million to 1.5 million people annually, with an annual economic impact of $185 million, said David Oman, The Environmental Project's executive director.

A $20 million award from the state, through Community Attraction and Tourism dollars would help the project attract corporate and foundation support and perhaps allow groundbreaking as soon as late summer.

Or, better yet, replenish the Vision Iowa program by issuing bonds. That $225 million fund, which also required a local match, helped jump-start major attractions all over Iowa. It was wildly successful economic development - the last grant was given out in December - and could be again.

As for a rain forest in Iowa: Sometimes the unexpected is irresistible.

To the Register board: Did you people actually write this article, or did you just scan in some press release from the Environmental Project? Has the Project invested some of that "fundraising" seed money in Gannett stock? Or are critical thinking skills simply an entirely foreign concept?

I hate to basically duplicate posts, but I can't but concur with everything State said, and more.

Beyond the obvious parroting of the EP party line regarding tourism numbers, please note that the Register editorial inserts this incredibly illogical statement (also likely from the EP promotional materials):
A $20 million award from the state, through Community Attraction and Tourism dollars would help the project attract corporate and foundation support and perhaps allow groundbreaking as soon as late summer.

I see. I presume that's because the other $40 million was just not enough to catch the attention of these ethereal corporate and foundation sponsors? You just need that extra twenty mill just to put those sponsors over the top. Really. Because the EP hasn't had the funding to go out and solicit sponsors on it's own? Oh, wait, that's right. As the Register itself reported, they spent over $600,000 trying to drum up sponsors last year. Well, I'm sure having yet another $20 mill of government money will make all the difference.

Seriously, I've a suggestion: Take their fuzzy numbers, take your resources - paid reporters that I presume were hired to go out and actually investigate stuff - and do the legwork. Just like reporters are supposed to do.

See if the project's projections hold up to close scrutiny. See how other fake rainforests are doing, and comparable ones. Factor in the idea that while Denver and to a lesser extent Omaha are inherently tourist destinations.

Stop passing off product promotional propoganda as an actual editorial.

I dare you.