Thursday, September 28, 2006

Rain Forest: "Shell and Pea Games" vs. Basics

With the Earthpark board's selection of a site today (September 28) [See, State 29, "Earthpork Announcement on Thursday?" September 27, 2006; Gregg Hennigan, "And the Winner Is . . .; Rain Forest Expected to Pick Either Pella or Riverside Today," The Gazette, September 28, 2006], it's time to review some basics about this project.

Over the past five years I have been adding to what is now a book-length Web site about the proposed rain forest, with links to the full text of 100s of articles and reports, my own commentary, and links to some 14 of my published op eds, and 15 other significant documents, over those years.

Anyone interested in getting into the history and details of the project will find that resource useful. But it is, admittedly, a bit much for the vast majority of journalists with looming deadlines and Iowans who have many more significant issues on their plates and have little more than a casual awareness of, and interest in, the project -- if that.

The problem that creates is that they, and the media reporting about the proposed rain forest, can be much more easily manipulated with the glitz and glamour, blue smoke and mirrors, and the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't shell and pea game the project's promoters have been playing for over a decade.

So I thought it appropriate on this day -- if this day does, indeed, turn out to be the day of site selection -- to review some basics in very summary fashion.

1. "Site selection" is yet one more diversion, not a meaningful decision. It's like asking you, "If you were going to build a $2 million home, where would you build it?"

2. Operating costs are the deal breaker. The discussion, even by project critics, has centered on raising the up-front money to build this thing. That's also a diversion. None of the functions it might end up performing are sustainable. That's what the discussion ought to be about.

3. Lack of focus. It's still not clear what would go inside this structure, or why. It's been promoted as a national research center, a teacher training facility, a tourist attraction, a K-5 school -- and many other, often mutually inconsistent, functions. As State 29 has said, "It's a floor wax, it's a desert topping; it's whatever they want it to be." But whether its revenue stream would come from research grants, Iowa's school districts, or ticket sales, best estimates are that it won't be able to make it financially.

4. Lack of business basics. Obviously, without focus, without knowing what you're doing or why, it's impossible to comply with the "Management 101" requirement of a detailed business plan. [For my critique of the "business plan" they have, see Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark Business Plan: A Review," August 12, 2006.] Without a detailed business plan it's somewhere between exceedingly difficult and impossible to get funding -- as has proven to be the case.

5. Failure to attract financing. The real elephant in this rain forest is that in 10 years the project's promoters have not banked a dime from foundations, corporations, wealthy contributors, or governments. (Exception: Senator Grassley got them a $50 million earmark, but shut off the spiggot after discovering they had taken $3 million without turning a spade-full of earth. It's now a "matching grant" -- which they are unable to match.)

In this case, the diversionary tactic is to focus on the $25 million the project is demanding from local communities -- a bit outrageous, given the results of the project's own failure with its decade-long search for funds nationally. Even more outrageous is the misrepresentation that this has been "met or exceeded" in both Riverside and Pella -- given that the facts clearly show it has been neither met nor exceeded in Riverside, and Pella refuses to reveal its funding.

Why is focusing on the $25 million diversionary? Because, even if it had been "met or exceeded" (and all indications are it hasn't) $25 million is only a drop in the bucket. This was originally a $300 million project. It now has no money; and $25 million gets it nothing. It will need $50 million to free the $50 million matching grant. At that point it will still need between $55 and $80 million more -- if its own figures are to be believed, and there are no cost overruns. Focusing on the "$25 million" only diverts attention from the fact that this proposed undertaking has neither the money, nor the prospects for getting it, needed to build and operate such a project.

Coupled with the fact that 14 (soon to be 15) of the 16 communities supposedly once interested in this project, after evaluating it, have said "thanks, but no thanks," this overwhelming lack of financial and other support over a period of 10 years ought to tell even the least well informed journalist, or member of the public, something.

6. The shrinking rain forest. Given the project promoters' repeated failures to raise what they now say is $155 million, they might as well have stuck with their original $300 million, or $225 million goal. Even their own consultants warned them, when they reduced the project from $300 to $225 million, that they were flirting with failure. Being "the world's largest" (as Omaha's once was; see, Nicholas Johnson, "Coralville Project Can't Match Up to Omaha's Zoo," Des Moines Register, July 17, 2004) is one key (among many others, also not present) to making a project like this work (see, Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Learn From 'What Works,'" Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 20, 2006).

7. Other troubling factors. For a "summary" this is already much longer than I intended. Needless to say, there are many other categories of concerns about this project that any community, or individual, seriously interested in it needs to investigate. They are explored in some detail in the materials available from my "Iowa Rain Forest" Web site.

But as the publicity steam roller reaches maximum speed later today, this may help provide a little perspective with which to evaluate the claims.

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