Monday, June 04, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 499 - Caveat Emptor: Earthpark's Back

June 4, 2007, 10:20 a.m., 9:00 p.m.

EXTRA: You can bet I'll have plenty to say tomorrow about Search Committee II's inexplicable rejection of Provost Mike Hogan -- whom Search Committee I considered to be one of the four most highly qualified candidates in the entire United States a mere six months ago!!

Rain Forests in Iowa?!

Last Friday I was a little too brief in noting the latest news out of Pella regarding the proposed Iowa Rain Forest Project. Here's what I wrote:

Earthpark, or as State29 calls it, "Earthpork," is back in the news. We've heard virtually nothing for nearly six months from what was once the output of a regular public relations machine. I'm indebted to Brad Franzwa for bringing to my attention that the Pella Town Crier is bringing us up to date. Don't worry, the rain forest in a tulip bed still doesn't yet have a lock on the $50 million they need to pick up Senator Grassley's earmark on their behalf. But they're clearly not throwing in the towel. After all, would you, if a Senator would dangle $50 million in front of you? "What's Happening With the Earthpark Project? Gov. Culver line item vetoes Vision Iowa funds...," Pella Town Crier, May 31, 2007. Governor Culver is pretty much on record opposing the project, and has tightened down the screws a bit on the State money the rain forest promoters were hoping to grab. Jason Clayworth, "Earthpark weathers Culver's rejection; The decision to not increase tourism grant limits won't be fatal, backers say," Des Moines Register, May 31, 2007.
[Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark" in "UI Held Hostage Day 496 - Rain Forest, Cable, Bars, Search," June 1, 2007.]

I have been tracking this project for six and a half years during which I have created 14 op ed columns, the texts of 15 speeches and other documents, and a 100-plus-page Web site,, with links to an uncounted (but probably at least 500) full texts of newspaper articles and other sources. For much of that time the Web site was updated on a weekly basis. Since late last year, as the promoters finally had to settle on Pella after being rejected by numerous Iowa cities up and down Interstate 80 (some more than once), there has been so little information about it that there has been little if anything about which to report or comment.

Although I've characterized myself as "neither booster nor basher" -- since I've mostly just pushed for answers (seldom if ever forthcoming) to what I (and others) view as essential questions -- little of what I've written could be confused with public relations pap on behalf of the project.

The only reason I'm writing now is because David Oman is apparently back again with his tin cup, in search of public money. And after I went back and re-read this morning Jason Clayworth's story in the Register last week, linked above, I realized that many Iowans may have by now forgotten the history of this project.

What follows is not intended to be critical of Clayworth. I assume he is an excellent reporter or he wouldn't be working for the Register. It is more a commentary about what I view as the shortcomings in the treatment of this project by public officials and media alike over the past 10 years.

If you're personally interested in this project, working on it in Pella, or thinking of investing in it one way or another, I really urge you to spend some time with the materials accessible through my rain forest Web site, linked above, before you do. Even ignore my commentary, if you must, but at least familiarize yourself with a balanced assessment from the data and comments of experts.

Many public officials and media have simply accepted project CEO David Oman's assertions and public relations as fact. The depth of their analyses of the issues extends little further than, "This is just the kind of big thinking Iowa needs; anyone opposing this project is an example of what's wrong with Iowans, they're just lacking in vision." There has been little to none of the questioning that any one of them would demand as a matter of course of someone asking them to put their own money into a for-profit venture, or a non-profit community institution.

Some observers question the value of the project regardless of cost. They would oppose it even if some wealthy benefactor offered the $300 million to build it, and a comparably sized endowment to help support its operation. What they've called "a rain forest in a corn field" doesn't make any sense to them. They think the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, on the banks of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, is more related to and suitable for Iowa. Or a prairie. Or the Living History Farms near Des Moines. Or the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in his home town of West Branch.

Others have expressed concern about the negative environmental impact of keeping such a structure cooled in the summer and heated in the winter.

These are largely matters of personal values and choice -- although a meaningful local tie apparently does tend to contribute to the economic success of attractions.

But matters of personal taste have not been my primary focus. I've been more concerned with what might be called the basic, Business 101, factors.

To the extent the media has expressed any apprehension about this project at all it has focused on the ability of its promoters to raise the construction funds. Given that they have not raised one dime in 10 years of trying, that is not an insignificant issue.

However, the media tends to accept and repeat what is now described as the project's $155 (or $150) million price tag. But the project's own consultants told the promoters early on that the only way it would have a prayer of making it would be if it could legitimately market itself as "the world's largest." That's when it was a $300 million project, cut to $225 million, and the promoters, unable to raise money, wanted to lower their sights further.

Given the promoters' demonstrated, decade-long failure at fund raising, it is certainly not going to be a "slam dunk" for them to raise the $50 million necessary to match, and thereby get access to, the $50 million earmark Senator Grassley slipped through the Senate for them -- especially by the December 2007 drop dead date.

Moreover, once they get the $50 million, plus Senator Grassley's $50 million, where is the additional $50 million (or $125 million, if the consultants are to be believed) going to come from?

But as difficult as raising the construction money may be, it is as child's play compared with figuring out how the operation will be sustained.

For starters, the conception has been shifting over the past decade -- K-5 school, world class research facility, IMAX theater, indoor jungle overnight camp ground, teacher training institution, corporate products display showcase, tourist facility, potted trees on plastic stumps vs. real trees, with animals vs. without, and so forth. So it's never been totally clear exactly what it is we're talking about.

If and when one figures out just what all this "vision" truly envisions, you're then left with the need for a business plan. What is a realistic projection of operating costs -- which, of course, are wildly different based on what is going on inside that shell? Once that's determined, one can then address the question of where that cash flow is coming from, and just how realistic those income projections are.

For example, if it is to be a tourist facility, most projections of needed revenue would require that every Iowan -- from new born babes to the terminally ill elderly -- visit the rain forest and pay the full admission price every two years for the entirety of their lives. Call me a pessimist if you must, but that seems to me a little unrealistic.

There are dozens more concerns laid out and addressed on my rain forest Web site, linked above, that I won't take the time and space to repeat here.

Based on these kinds of concerns, here are some quotes from Jason Clayworth's story that I would think might require some balance:
"a proposed $155 million environmental attraction,"
"Gov. Chet Culver's veto of legislation to extend a tourism grant program is not a death blow,"
"an interactive environmental museum-like attraction with a 12-story Amazon-style rain forest, a 575,000-gallon aquarium and an environmental and ecological educational center,"
"Earthpark has obtained a $50 million federal grant,"
"'There are many combinations of sources that could unlock the federal grant, and we're working on those fronts,' Oman said,"
"The project will attract a million visitors a year, create 760 jobs and have an annual economic impact of $140 million,"
"Advocates had also hoped to apply, in partnership with the city of Pella, for grants from Iowa's Community Attraction and Tourism program, totalling between $25 million and $35 million,"
"Sen. Dennis Black, a Grinnell Democrat who is a board member of Earthpark, said the veto . . . has not killed the Pella-area project. Advocates will seek private contributions and other public grants," and
"Earthpark is modeled after the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, which attracted more than 8 million visitors in the past five years."
The Pella Town Crier News (linked above), by contrast, quotes Mike Nardini, Pella City Administrator, as saying "There has been nothing submitted to the city, no formal application, no formal commitments on the part of the city." The project is "still in the state funding process. . . . If the project receives Vision Iowa money and continues to move forward, then the city will go through the normal process it would with any other development project."

The Town Crier continues, "He suggested there would be zoning issues, the subdivision process, site plan review - all public processes, open for public attendance. He reiterated that there has been no financial commitment on the part of the city. 'Once the project moves forward, the city will explore all options, just as it would for any project. Any additional costs generated by the development will be paid for by the developers and by the revenue generated by the project itself.'"

And apparently even the $155 million has now been reduced to $150 million and is going to be stretched to cover a lot more than construction: "With a price tag of $150 million (which includes building, furnishing, hiring, training and populating the project), raising capital continues . . .."

It provides a little different view of the situation than the Register's story, doesn't it?

Anyhow, since this project is once again rearing its head, and its promoters will obviously be desperate in their efforts to beg, borrow or steal $50 million from somewhere during the next six months, I'm just reminding any who may be approached -- and who are reading this blog entry -- that there is information you need to read, and that is freely available to you, at

You may very well come to other conclusions than I have after reading what's out there. Or you may conclude my questions and concerns have been long since resolved -- at least to your satisfaction. But whatever you decide, better an hour or two of getting informed now than limiting yourself to public relations assertions, and the enthusiasm of boosters, only to regret your loss of money later.

UICCU and "Optiva"

The UICCU-Optiva story is essentially behind us. There may be occasional additions "for the record," but for the most part the last major entry, with links to the prior material from October 2006 through March 2007, is "UICCU and 'Optiva'" in Nicholas Johnson, "UI Held Hostage Day 406 - March 3 - Optiva," March 3, 2007. Since then there have been two major additions: Nicholas Johnson, "Open Letter to UICCU Board" in "UI Held Hostage Day 423 - March 20 - UICCU," March 20, 2007, and "'Open Letter': Confirmation from World Council of Credit Unions" in "UI Held Hostage Day 424 - March 21 UICCU," March 21, 2007.

# # #

[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

These blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

# # #

Media Stories and Commentary

See above.

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 comment:

Mary Greer said...

Just trying to find the comments section. --Mary