Friday, August 04, 2006

Riverside Weighs Rain Forest

Apparently the scheduled August 3 meeting between the rain forest promoters and the City Council and citizens of Riverside has, at long last, taken place.

As interesting for what they reveal about journalism as for what they report about that meeting, the coverage by the Iowa City Press-Citizen and The Gazette are now available in side-by-side columns.

Mike McWilliams' story in the Press-Citizen is played as page one, column one, above the fold, with a very large font headline, and a five-column-wide reproduction of the project's full color, promotional, artist's drawing of what a rain forest now looks like in Oman's dreams. The headline reads: "Earthpark, Riverside meet."

Gregg Hennigan's story for The Gazette is in the second section ("Iowa Today"), right hand side, part way down the page. The headline is: "Rain forest plan raises questions in Riverside."

The Press-Citizen's lead paragraph reads: "For Becky LaRoche, landing the Earthpark project here would be an economic boon and an educational benefit for area children."

The Gazette's story begins: "Though Riverside is one of two finalists trying to land the proposed $155 million Earthpark indoor ran forest, people here still have many questions about the project."

The stories continue consistently with their leads.

The primary local concerns reflected in the Press-Citizen's story were those of a local couple who had retired to Riverside "for the country life and some quiet" and were concerned their hoped-for sylvan scenes might end up decidedly more urban. (Although the story refers to council member Mariellen Bower's concern, it quotes her as favoring the concept ("The concept of it is great") and limits her concern to the City's ability to participate without additional professional help.)

By contrast, Gregg Hennigan quoted one resident as saying, "There's a lot of ifs and buts there we need to watch out for;" reported council member Mariellen Bower's concern as, "If Earthpark would happen to fail, who does that come back on? The city?"; referred to Earthpark's "falling out" with Coralville; and picked up on the inherent conflict between casino CEO Dan Kehl's casual reference to the Riverboat Foundation giving $8 million to the rain forest (over 10 years) and Foundation vice chair Patty Koller's comment earlier that "the organization has not discussed giving any money to the rain forest." (He also indicated she is "a fan of the rain forest," gave coverage to Oman's presentation, and Kehl's comments.)

What troubles me about much of the journalistic reporting about this project over the past few years -- in addition to that which is obvious, promotional cheerleading rather than reporting -- is how close much of it comes to "repeating rather than reporting" the public relations sales pitch of the rain forest's promoters without adequate qualification, using a language that ignores distinctions between hopes and possibilities, on the one hand, and certainties on the other.

McWilliams is careful, as he approaches this cliff, not to go over the edge. For example, he concludes, "Construction is expected to begin next year with the Earthpark scheduled to open in 2010" (emphasis supplied).

But Riverside has recently witnessed construction of a casino that was "expected to begin" in 2005 and a scheduled opening for September 1, 2006, that was completed ahead of schedule and will, in fact, open later this month. Local residents could not be faulted for assuming that if "construction is expected to begin" on the rain forest "next year" that construction will begin next year -- kind of skipping over the qualifiers "expected to" and "scheduled to," or giving them the meaning that they have had most recently in Riverside.

The document referred to in this blog yesterday, "Rain Forest 'Remaining Issues' Still Remain" (
Nicholas Johnson, "The Coralville Rain Forest: A Brief Overview of Remaining Issues," April 9, 2004, rev. ed. April 24, 2004), was written at a time when it was said the rain forest's "construction is expected to begin" in the fall of 2004. To fail to mention that this project has been around for 10 years without ever meeting a promised deadline is to misrepresent the facts to all but readers who have been tracking this project over the last decade.

In the case of money raised, the quotes and writing in the Press-Citizen's story contains its own internal contradictions. Maybe this is its salvation in terms of accurate journalism: If a reader will read the entire story, and think about it, the promoters' stories and representations will be seen for what they are. But I think that's asking, and expecting, too much from a casual reader.

McWilliams writes: "Oman said Riverside and Pella were chosen because both cities submitted financial packages that met or exceeded the $25 million in local funding."

"Met or exceeded"? OK, think about that as you're reading what he later reports:

"Dan Kehl said his family would contribute $2 million and the casino would pay $10 million over the next 10 years. The Washington County Riverboat Foundation could contribute $8 million over the next 10 years, and remaining funds could come from revenue from a hotel/motel tax or a sales tax rebate from the state, Kehl said."

Is $1 million a year for 10 years the equivalent of $10 million in hand, today? Or $800,000 a year for 10 years the equivalent of $8 million? And this Foundation, remember, has never yet discussed the matter. Bradley Franzwa's analysis of the hotel/motel tax blows away promoters' promises of what that's going to raise -- even if (a) the City Council approves it, and (b) it was all given to the rain forest.. And a "sales tax rebate from the state" doesn't sound like "local funding" to me. Finally, even accepting all these numbers as accurate, and providing cash in hand now, they don't add up to $25 million.

Nor is the subsequent repetition of the promoters' take on the additional funding they need any better. "[O]fficials say the project will be funded by a $50 million Department of Energy grant . . . and state funding they hope will be between $15 million to $20 million. The rest, they said, could come from debt financing."

Mike McWilliams has conditioned the statement with "officials say," "they hope" and "they said," but the clear impression left with the reader is, "not to worry, they've got the money lined up."

Well, they don't. They can't touch the $50 million until they can match it. And right now they can't match it. Even if they had the $25 million in "local funding," which they don't, they would need an additional $25 million to match the $50 million. And bear in mind, with all their corporate contacts and influential friends in Washington, over the course of a decade they have not raised a dime beyond the promise of $50 million if they can match it.

The state funding they "hope" will be forthcoming involves an agency that's now out of money and has never expressed any interest in this project.

If they ever could match the $50 million, that would give them $100 million. But bear in mind their own consultant told them to make it financially this one-time $300 million design should not be reduced in size beyond the first cutback to $225 million. It's since been reduced to a $180 million project -- and now, McWilliam reports, it's been further reduced to a $155 million project.

Even at $155 million, and with $100 million in the bank, the project will still be $55 million short (or $80 million short if they use the plan they've had for the last few years).

Finally, putting aside the question of whether the Department of Energy will treat "debt" as meeting the requirements for the matching grant, the one common death knell for projects of this kind has been the failure to have them fully funded from the start, adding to the operation and maintenance burden the added cost of paying back principal and interest.

It just seems to me that without this kind of background, it would be very difficult for a reader to interpret either of today's stories, and have a realistic basis for projecting the probabilities of a successful rain forest in Riverside, but especially the version in the Press-Citizen.

1 comment:

John Neff said...

Types of jobs that could be created if the promoters are convicted of fraud are prison correction officers while they are in prison and parole officers while they are on parole.