Thursday, June 23, 2005

Amateur Hour

From the Press-Citizen this morning:
The leaders of a planned $180 million enclosed rain forest are on the verge of signing a contract with a company to oversee the construction of the project.

According to Nancy Quellhorst, vice president of The Environmental Project, a team of consultants from KUD International would be coordinating diverse aspects of the construction of the 4.5-acre, caterpillar-shaped structure. KUD would be in charge of coordinating everything from financing to design and engineering to actual construction.

"This is a very typical step of a project of this scale," Quellhorst said.

The news even made City Councilor Tom Gill more optimistic about the project. Gill has been critical of the rain forest as it has stalled at $90 million in fund-raising since January 2004. In November, he called on the city to end its relationship with the project if funding was not found in 60 days.

"Things are starting to look up for it," Gill said. "I'm not going to be critical of it, because to be honest with you, they're doing the things that need to be done."
Tom Gill is only about 6 months late with his threat.

I nominate Tom Gill to be the next UN Ambassador from the United States. He obviously has the skillz necessary to suggest action, fail to follow through on it, not hold anybody else accountable, and bend over (or dance) on command. How French of him. What a pussy.

In case you didn't notice, KUD oversees the construction aspects of projects. Yes, they supposedly are involved in financing, but check out some of the projects they've done a little further down this column and you'll see how much they've done in that arena.

Does anybody want to dig David Oman out of his bunker or get Ted Townsend off his treadmill for a minute to ask where the hell the other $90 million is coming from?

It's been almost a year since the Register reported that the PorkForest con-artists spent $611,741 to raise $565,000.

It's been a year and a half since Chuck Grassley came through with $50 million in taxpayer-financed deficit money for this project.

Where's the beef? All I see is pork from my wallet.
Quellhorst said KUD is a subsidiary of Japan-based Kajima Corporation and has had a variety of high-dollar projects on its resume. These include the $118 million Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., and Pacific Bell Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants.

KUD also is in charge of the construction of Biota!, a planned $150 million project in London with an aquarium and a number of animal exhibits, including a rain forest section.

"We were very attracted to an organization that has significant experience in an area very similar to ours," Quellhorst said.

As soon as a contract is signed, which Quellhorst said could happen any day, a team led by KUD consultant John Best will start work overseeing the project. Best is based out of the company's Santa Monica, Calif., offices.

The Long Beach Aquarium Of The Pacific was financed entirely by the City Of Long Beach. There's some detail about the arrangement here:
Construction and start-up funds for the Aquarium came from private revenue bonds that were sold in 1995. While Long Beach’s hotel/motel tax and Port fees provide a guarantee, no tax funds are involved and the bonds will be retired out of operating revenue in seven, 20, and thirty year terms.

In spring 1999, Kajima said that attendance at the LBA had exceeded expectations.

But look what I found (PDF) after 20 seconds of Googling. It's a report from June of 2000 and year-to-date in 2000.

The Long Beach Aquarium appeared to be, financially-speaking, seriously underwater.

And Long Beach is right next to LA, you know. Over 16 million people live in the LA metro area, but the city had a rough go of it in the 1990s thanks to riots and layoffs.

Pac Bell Park cost about $350 million (original estimates were pegged at around $250 million) but was privately financed (although it's located in wealthy San Francisco, a metro area with a population two and a half times that of Iowa). It was the first ballpark built entirely with private financing since Dodger Stadium in 1962!

Biota is being financed by the Zoological Society Of London, a charity. If you read this BBC account of what Biota will be, it sounds like a doppleganger of the Iowa Child project, but with the proper financing.

A reporter needs to ask Kajima what their role was in the financing aspects of these projects. In the Long Beach and Biota projects it appears their role would be quite minimal, but you never know.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

What Iowa Is All About

Not rainforests, but this:

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Strib: Sizzle Or Fizzle

From the Mpls Star-Tribune (registration required):
CORALVILLE, IOWA -- Once the wild monkeys get here, and the tropical trees and plants, Nancy Quellhorst figures all the doubts and snickers she hears now will stop.

"I get questions every day," she said. "People don't know what to expect."

That's because she is trying to create a rainforest.

On the Iowa prairie.

It's no joke. In the next few years, this small town near Iowa City could become the incongruous home of the world's largest enclosed rainforest, spread over 4.5 acres and soaring nearly 20 stories high, with a curving translucent dome designed to shed snow and walls built to withstand tornadoes.

It would look like a giant caterpillar. And the bold vision behind it is being billed as Iowa's salvation.

Some of the state's most prominent civic and political leaders are backing the project, which has received $50 million in federal funding. Iowa, they say, can no longer count on cornfields to power its economy and keep young residents from leaving. It needs tour buses.

"We have to rethink our future," said Ted Stilwill, a former Iowa education secretary who is part of the team developing the rainforest. "This feels a little outrageous -- but that's exactly what we have to do."

Stilwill added: "When young people look around this state, they don't see imagination."

"This idea," said Quellhorst, the director of operations for the rainforest, "has sizzle."

But questions still surround the project, which has been in the works for years but not yet broken ground. Debate about it is flaring up because the nonprofit foundation preparing to build the rainforest is now asking the state for $20 million.

Some skeptics contend that expense would be risky, even foolish, for Iowa. They say an out-of-place ecosystem is unlikely to beckon big crowds from the Midwest and beyond to Coralville, especially in winter.

"Iowa has gotten too caught up in the 'Field of Dreams' movie -- that 'if you build it, they will come' mentality," said Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor who has questioned the project. "The attendance projections are totally unrealistic. Coralville ain't Las Vegas."

A solid plan

Much of the plan for the rainforest is in place. It would be built on mostly vacant, weedy industrial lots that Coralville owns, next to Interstate Hwy. 80 and a hotel and conference center already under construction.

The rainforest would be part of a 30-acre interactive science center featuring nature trails, an aquarium and theater, and multimedia exhibits on the environment. It would house towering tropical trees and an array of exotic animal and plant species. It also would rely on clean and renewable sources of energy, such as sunlight, and use cutting-edge technologies to capture and conserve water. Admission would be about $15.

Advocates of the project, who include former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, say it would be an extraordinary resource for teaching students about science -- and a godsend for Iowa's struggling economy.

They expect the rainforest to draw more than 1 million visitors a year. They also say it would pump $187 million a year into the state economy, in part by creating 300 permanent jobs and sparking a need for another 2,000 around eastern Iowa. They are hoping to open in 2008.

"I think it will definitely happen," said Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, "and it will have tremendous benefits for the state."

Ted Townsend, a wealthy Des Moines businessman and founder of the Iowa Child Institute, first proposed building an indoor rainforest in the state nearly a decade ago. He has donated $10 million to the cause.

His plan is now modeled after an endeavor called the Eden Project, a domed and sprawling nature conservancy in England that includes an indoor rainforest. It opened four years ago in Cornwall and is attracting more than 1 million visitors annually.

The campaign to build an indoor rainforest in Coralville gained momentum last year when Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley stitched $50 million into the federal budget to help pay for it. Some public-interest groups derided that move as an example of reckless congressional spending and began calling the project "Iowa's Pork Forest."

Grassley remains a staunch supporter of the rainforest. "He believes this is a great opportunity for Iowa to diversify its economy," said Jill Kozeny, a spokeswoman for the senator.

The project received another boost this spring when the Des Moines Register endorsed it in an editorial, saying, "Sometimes the unexpected is irresistible."

Points in its favor

David Oman, the rainforest's executive director, said he believes the project will succeed partly because of its location. About 45,000 vehicles a day travel past the proposed site along I-80, he said. The rainforest would be just a few miles from the University of Iowa and less than a day's drive from Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis and the Twin Cities.

He sounds weary of skeptics. "People questioned Mount Rushmore. People questioned the Eiffel Tower," Oman exclaimed. "We spend a lot of time and money in the heartland going elsewhere to look at people's dreams. That has to change."

But even some supporters of the rainforest say they are getting restless about how long it is taking to develop the project.

"I'd love to see it happen," said Tom Gill, a City Council member in Coralville, which has about 15,000 residents. "But we've never really had a clear picture of the finances. And the ideas about what it's going to be always seem to be evolving."

Project officials appear to have all the land they need. Fausett said that Coralville is committed to donating several large tracts and improving the infrastructure around them.

But rainforest backers, who already have scaled down their original vision, are still raising money. They say they have nearly $100 million but may need as much as $80 million more. Quellhorst said she is in talks with an array of potential corporate partners.

The rainforest also could face competition from a smaller science center that opened last month in Des Moines. The center has interactive exhibits and an IMAX theater.

A future eyesore?

Critics of the rainforest say they fear the state could be stuck with a huge highway eyesore if visitors do not come in droves.

Johnson, the law professor, said that expecting well over a million people a year to pay $15 each to visit a rainforest in a small Iowa town hours from the kind of big-city amenities tourists crave is wildly optimistic. Johnson also contends that many of the 45,000 vehicles that pass the proposed site daily are commercial trucks in a hurry.

"This could become a monument to our stupidity," he said.

Stilwill said he is not surprised to hear such doubts, even though three consulting firms that examined the project in separate studies reached the same conclusion on how many visitors it would attract a year. "There's a kind of 'Prairie Home Companion' view of life in the Midwest that's humble," he said. "So whenever you try to do something unusual, skepticism is the first reaction you get."

Even if they raise all the money they need, advocates of the rainforest will have to wrestle with other strange and difficult challenges before it opens.

To name one: getting Amazonian trees planted in Iowa.

The plan, Quellhorst said, is to buy them from tree farms in Florida and bring them by barge up the Mississippi River.

She also will have to round up scores of animal and plant species that flourish in a rainforest -- without plucking them from existing rainforests.

"There's so much detail involved in this, you wouldn't believe it," Quellhorst said.

But she expressed confidence that the many tasks ahead will be completed. And that when the rainforest gets built in Coralville, more than enough people will come.

Even in winter.

"Because it's going to be warm inside," Quellhorst said.

They have a poll: Would you visit an enclosed rainforest in Iowa?

Non-scientific results are here


From the Des Moines Register's letters section today:
Last year the Register supported the proposed Coralville rain forest because "Iowa needs more big thinking" ("Listen to Younger Iowans," March 12, 2004). This year it was because "it's not as crazy-sounding as it once was" ("Fund the Unexpected," April 25, 2005). Really?

We benefit from "big thinking." No dream is "crazy." But both require realistic business plans.

One more year and "the elephant in the rain forest" remains. Promoters are still $90 million short on a $180 million project. Not a single dime has been added to the kitty by wealthy individuals, granting authorities, government agencies, corporations or foundations.

One more year and we still don't know what they're talking about. As blogger State 29 put it, "It's a floor wax. It's a dessert topping. It's an aquarium. It's an IMAX. It's a tourist attraction. It's an educational trainer center for science teachers. It's whatever they want it to be." (Once "Iowa Child," nine years later they still haven't agreed on a name.)

One more year and we still don't have construction, programmatic, staffing or operating details. Even if a focus could be found, there's no way to evaluate its feasibility.

One more year and we still don't know costs and budgets. What does the $180 million include? Construction only? Plants and animals? Pre-opening promotion? Subsidies for low-income children?

Cost overruns five times budget are not uncommon for one-of-a-kind projects. Where will that money come from?

Whether tourist attraction, research center or something else, finding perpetual operating funds is an even greater challenge.

"Civic journalism" is one thing. The Register does it well. Whipping up public and official enthusiasm for an ill-defined, unfunded dream, still "as crazy-sounding as it once was," is another.

-Nicholas Johnson,
Iowa City.

What in the world! How did that one slip by the editor?

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Avenue of the Saints Iowa's Child Homeless Shelter and Casino

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen's Letters to the Editor section:
Some Johnson County residents are angry a rain forest is being built. Some people in Iowa City are angry a new homeless shelter is being built. Some residents in Washington County are angry a casino is being built.

There are to many angry people in this area. To curb this anger I propose we build The Avenue of the Saints Iowa's Child Homeless Shelter and Casino.

The rain forest is a perfect living area for our homeless population. They can be free to live under the stars but are protected from the elements. They would be just another of God's creatures that inhabit the forest. The homeless also would have easy access to the gamblers. They could walk right up and ask for contributions, and the gamblers could be charitable without ever having to leave their seat, all the while having beautiful scenery to look at.

The rain forest would benefit because the revenue that was generated by the gamblers would keep it operational. The taxpayers will be happy because they wouldn't have to foot the bill to keep the rain forest afloat or pay for a homeless shelter. In the end we would have peace on our saintly avenue instead of outrage and anger.

Tim Borchardt
Iowa City

Related: Pitch Your Tent At Rainforest Motel 42

Then there was this today in the Waterloo Courier:
Regarding the indoor rain forest in Coralville, I believe we should not be wasting our money on something that is only going to attract tourists, if that. We need to ask our government why the state's money is going toward a rain forest, instead of roads, schools and even job funding. What we need in this state is something that is going to attract people to come and live here, not just drive through. Why spend $5 million to build a rain forest when it is just used to attract tourists and isn't going to be used many times.

Melissa Lackas
It's only going to cost $5 million? Did they reduce the size and scope of the project to that of a mobile home?