Monday, November 26, 2007

Earthpark's Week-Long Wake

November 26, 2007, 5:30 p.m.; November 27, 2007, 7:25 a.m., 7:15 p.m.; November 28, 2007, 6:45 a.m.; November 29, 2007, 6:40 a.m.; November 30, 2007, 6:00 a.m. (questions for Senator Grassley); December 2, 2007, 8:00 a.m.; December 4, 2007, 7;00 p.m.; December 6, 2007, 3:10 p.m., 5:30 p.m.; December 7, 2007, 8:00 a.m.

[Dec. 7] Only because this blog entry is now pushing lengths becoming unwieldy, I'm starting a new one later this morning -- while continuing to "incorporate by reference" the material that remains very much relevant that is here. It's now (10:00 a.m.) available as Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: Grassley's the Story," December 7, 2007.

There's a Des Moines Register story yesterday that requires commentary. Like the UI presidential search that I blogged about (rather than creating a Web page for) under the assumption it would, of course, be wound up by the end of December 2005 -- only to experience it extending another six months -- the DOE said it would arrive at a decision in "a couple of days" (i.e., by last Tuesday (this now being Friday)). It now appears that, Senator Grassley's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Earthpark has been granted an "extension." It's outrageous!! [To be continued in the next blog entry later this morning.]

[Dec. 2-6] Earthpark Refuses to Make Public Document Available to Media

How Long? Oh, How Long Must We Wait to Know?

Which Iowa Media Will Be the First to Report Its Contents?

[Dec. 6] State29 has had a couple of blog entries worth noting: State29, "Earthpark: Oh, The Irony," December 5, 2007, and State29, "Blogger Malpractice?" December 5, 2007. He's now added, State29, "Earthpark: Bloggers Doing The Jobs That The Media Won't," December 6, 2007.

"Blogger Malpractice" concludes with a personal challenge of sorts from State29 to me: "I can see it now - Nick Johnson calling up, getting a copy, and scanning the thing into his archive for all to see. Well, I hope he does. I certainly don't expect him to do it."

How could I fail to oblige? My email to Brian J. Quirke went off this morning:

Dear Mr. Quirke:

As you are probably aware, there is a great deal of interest here in Iowa regarding the Earthpark application for the remainder of the $50 million Senator Chuck Grassley has made available to David Oman and his associates.

I have a number of questions to which I would appreciate your response.

1. Who (name and email) has the initial DOE responsibility for a judgment as to whether, or not, the conditions of the match have been met?

2. Who (name and email) has the final sign-off responsibility?

3. Because your indicated title is “Office of the Manager – Communications” are you a part of this decision making process, or are you primarily the public and media relations person for the Chicago office?

4. The local press reported that the application was timely filed by Earthpark (sent November 30, and received on December 1). I am assuming this is correct. Is it? It also quoted you as saying that document, and the DOE decisions regarding it, would be available within “a couple of days.” That would have been sometime between last Monday and Wednesday, depending on what days are counted. What is the current status of the decision making process and when do you now expect your decision will be made public?

5. Given the degree of interest in this matter, it would seem to me both more efficient for DOE, and certainly more efficient for citizens and media, if you would be willing to put the Earthpark document up on the DOE Web site. Agencies, including your own, often do this as you know. While the FOIA enables citizens to file formal requests, and even sue agencies if necessary, to get access to public documents, it certainly does not contemplate that this will be the required process in every case. Question: Are you willing to make the Earthpark application available via the Web (either in the electronic form in which it was provided to the Chicago Office, or if it only came in hard copy, as a scanned document)?

6. Can you refer me to the statutory, or DOE regulatory, or directions from Senator Grassley’s office, or other written standards that will be applied by your office in determining whether whatever Earthpark has or has not provided should be considered to constitute a “match”?

Nicholas Johnson
If the email is answered I'll share that with readers of this blog. If it is not, I'll share that fact with you a week from now.

Meanwhile, the [Pella] Town Crier News reports:

Mayor Dobernecker speaks briefly about EarthPark

Following a brief news clip on television this morning, we called Mayor Dobernecker for his take on the report that funding for the Earthpark project proposed for Pella had been secured.

The Mayor said he had been informed by David Oman, chairman of the project, that funding had been secured and the necessary paperwork submitted November 30 to the Department of Energy. Some felt it might be a matter of days, some felt a matter of months, before the Department of Energy reviewed the submitted documents and agreed that the funding met Departmental guidelines.

Further, the mayor stated that "The City of Pella has not committed one dime towards this project. The reality is that of course, if the project is to be completed, the City will incur some infrastructure expenses,," but that none of the funding that the project had to match in order to receive for the Department of Energy grant was from the City of Pella.

"Of course the City has done some preliminary estimates, but the appropriate time for the City to review and begin planning for what this project might actually mean for the City and what funds to commit where is after we are certain the project is actually taking place, that is, after the Department of Energy rules on the submission from Oman," the Mayor added.

Originally, Earthpark plans included condominiums near a new marina, but the Army Corps of Engineers rejected the marina proposal.
The Des Moines Register's "Dateline Iowa" this morning [Dec. 6] merely said,
"Earthpark's fate hinges on donations

Developers of Earthpark, the planned $150 million environmental and educational center near Pella, are waiting for the U.S. Department of Energy to pass judgment on a critical grant for the project.

The project planned for the north shore of Lake Red Rock had until Dec. 1 to come up with $48 million in matching money required for the project to keep a $48 million federal grant. Without the grant, the project would have to be retooled or scrapped.
There was no reference to the inside information Oman provided the Pella mayor, that prompted the Town Crier to report: "The Mayor said he had been informed by David Oman, chairman of the project, that funding had been secured . . .."

While I'm happy to help out with the above email to the DOE, I really think this story is the media's -- primarily the Des Moines Register, The Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen and Daily Iowan -- responsibility to (1) demand the document from Oman and the DOE, suing for it under FOIA if necessary, and then (2) question Senator Grassley along the lines I've indicated below.

Let's face it: This has been a major Iowa (and national) story for ten years; it's now come to a head; it's either dead or dying (i.e., it either is flat broke, or it has been granted $47 million toward the $300 million it needs -- with a decade long track record of being unable to raise one dime in cash). In either case it is a big, big story. And while I appreciate the Register at least reporting that it has done nothing, and knows nothing about it -- which is more than the other three papers have bothered to tell us -- that's scarcely what I think we have a right to expect from one of America's largest newspaper chains at a time when they're trying to convince us of the wisdom of permitting them to own TV stations in the same markets they dominate with their newspapers.


[Dec. 4] A week ago the Associated Press reported that Department of Energy spokesperson "[Brian] Quirke said a decision on the application could come within a couple of days after it's received." Associated Press, "Deadline for Earthpark matching funds is Saturday," Wire, November 28, 2007.

Given that it was received by DOE last Friday (Nov. 30) or Saturday (Dec. 1) I'd say it's been "a couple of days." But there's no word yet as to how many tons of blue smoke and mirrors it takes to make what Senator Grassley would accept as a match for the $50 million of taxpayers' money.

Meanwhile, as State29 has noted, State29, "Earthpork: Keeping the Boondoggle Boondoggling," December 4, 2007, the Press-Citizen's editorial essay about the project this morning was one of the best pieces of writing to come from the state's largely-Earthpark-cheerleading media during the last five years or so. Read it. Editorial, "Area Did Right Thing With the Earthpark Deal," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 4, 2007.

So a big "Hat's Off" to the Press-Citizen for what is an excellent start.

But I ask again: Who will be the first assignment editor to send a reporter out to ask Senator Grassley personally to respond to the questions I've laid out for him below, and then either tell us what he says, or report that he was too embarrassed to respond?

This is not just an "Earthpark story." It's not even just a "Senator Chuck Grassley story" -- although his former chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, and continued efforts to build the illusion he is a fiscal conservative, are certainly a part of the story. As an oft-cited example of one of the worst of Congress' "earmarks" excesses, Earthpark is, during this pre-caucus presidential candidates' season, a major politics and money story: What is the relationship between special interest campaign "contributions" and Congressional action -- or inaction? How is Congress handling our money, and what are these presidential candidates proposing to do about it? It is -- as most signs indicate that the light at the end of the financial tunnel is an oncoming recession -- a useful illustration of why we're in the financial trouble we're in. In short, this unmonitored giveaway is a big and multifaceted story.

For the media to ignore the lessons in this Earthpark disaster is doing no one a favor -- least of all their audience and readers.

[Dec. 2] Earthpark promoters, having built a reputation for themselves over the past decade as a no-transparency, wagons-in-a-circle bunch, have now outdone themselves.

As State29 reported Friday, State29, "Earthpork Deadline Tomorrow," November 30, 2007, Earthpark's application for Senator Chuck Grassley's generous $50 million of taxpayers' money was yesterday.

Their application was reportedly timely filed and is one day old today. It is, therefore, a public document, legally available to media and public alike -- and, if obstinately withheld, obtainable with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

And yet The Gazette reported yesterday, "Earthpark spokeswoman Kristin Sunde . . . declined to provide The Gazette a copy of the application." "Rain Forest Officials Submit Application," The Gazette, December 1, 2007, p. B7. What on Earth-park is this about? And why aren't The Gazette and the other Iowa media, normally our staunch defenders of public access, screaming bloody murder?

And who do we find pictured on the Des Moines Register's front page this morning? Well, a half-dozen presidential candidates. But I mean at the top of the far right column? None other than Earthpark founder Ted Townsend, featured in what I will call "a flattering feature story." (State29 may well come up with a characterization more befitting that blog's motto: "Keeping Track Of All Those Iowa Scandals While Remaining Insightfully Vulgar." Later: Well, I was wrong, but he does write about it; see State29, "Earthpork: The Day After the Deadline," December 2, 2007. ) Perry Beeman, "Big ideas, passion motivate Ape Trust founder," Des Moines Register, December 2, 2007, p. A1.

Over the past five years or more, I have endeavored to provide helpful suggestions for, as well as criticism of, Earthpark -- with little success at either. Because I've always thought that Townsend's "Great Ape Trust" made a lot more sense than his Iowa rain forest project, one suggestion was that -- so long as Senator Grassley was so stubbornly insistent on giving $50 million of our money to his friends and campaign contributors -- there at least be an effort to redirect the money away from a rain forest doomed to economic and other failures and into Townsend's Great Ape Trust, a science project with enormous potential.

With some tinkering, that might still be possible -- providing additional space for the great apes, a visitor center, or housing and offices for researchers.

Oman doesn't have $50 million cash on hand, and isn't about to get it. To do the rain forest right would require something closer to $300 million than the $150-140 million to which he's now scaled it back. Even if Senator Grassley does decide that Oman's received promises of unspecified, and over-valued "in-kind services" at some undesignated time in the future meet the terms of the required "match" of $50 million (less the $3 million Oman took and spent before he was caught and stopped), given that he has failed to raise a single dime over the past 10 years -- let me repeat that, with a full-bore effort at fund raising over a decade the promoters of this project have been unable to raise a dime -- that means, once he gets the $50 million from taxpayers, he will still only have that $50 million in hand to build what even Oman thinks needs $140-150 million (and I think needs twice that).

So -- even with Grassley's $50 million of taxpayers' money -- where is Oman now suddenly going to be able to come up with the additional $100 million, given the record of no contributions whatsoever over the past ten years?

For more on this failed proposal, see below, and my 200-page Earthpark Web site.


And in other news: FromDC2Iowa is going to be a running blog entry this week [November 26 until . . .], tracking last rites for Earthpark in this one entry until Senator Grassley finally rules on whether smoke and mirrors constitute his definition of a $50 million "match."

UI Sexual Assault. See, Rekha Basu, "Questions, again, over an alleged U of I sex assault," Des Moines Register, November 28, 2007; Scott Dochterman, "No set timeline for assault investigation," The Gazette, November 28, 2007, p. C1; "Regents staffers checking if UI followed policies," The Gazette, November 29, 2007, p. B1.

Hawkeye football's good news. [Nov. 29] Isn't it about time for some good news from the football program? With 10% of the team having been in trouble with the law, three more under investigation for sexual assault, the December 3 trial of a 2005 player charged with major drug dealing coming up next week, Jennifer Hemmingsen, "Former UI athlete faces six felony drug charges," The Gazette, November 21, 2007, and the trial of one of this season's players one week later (December 10), Rob Daniel, "Football Player Going to Trial," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 30, 2007, p. A1 (theft of credit cards, and subsequently theft of DVDs), and see Lee Hermiston, "Douglas reaches plea deal," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 4, 2007, it might be a good time for the program to showcase some of its more outstanding graduates.

One day later [Nov. 30] I'm pleased to note that both the Press-Citizen ("Klinkenborg, Shada Honored for Grades," p. B1) and The Gazette ("Klinkenborg, Shada Academic All-Americans," p. C1) carry the news this morning that Hawkeye football players Mike Klinkenborg and Adam Shada have been named "academic all-Americans" by the College Sports Information Directors for having earned a 3.95 and 4.00 GPA in elementary education and finance, respectively.

While I think it well worthwhile to document that there are, indeed, at least some players who really are student-athletes, what I was really looking for was something more along the line of what John Barleykorn contributed in a comment (11/29 9:11 a.m.) on this blog entry yesterday -- what football players have done after graduation. I don't mean those who are playing with pro teams; rather, those who are attending (or have graduated from) professional graduate schools, are doing community organizing or otherwise working with non-profits, are serving on school boards or in other elective or appointed positions -- though I don't mean to suggest it should be limited to those options.

How about it? Any more nominations? I think now would be a good time for a little more balance here.


Earthpark Teeters on Grave's Edge
Staying Alive? "Hmm, maybe if I change the name again & hit it some more"

[See the end of this blog entry for the credits and background on this editorial cartoon, created and copyright by Joe Sharpnack.]

[Nov. 30] Senator Chuck Grassley Has Explaining to Do

Senator Grassley must -- and ultimately will have to -- explain his $50 million earmark to the taxpayers of Iowa and the nation.

Politically, earmarks have come out of the closet and into the sunshine. They are a subject of the rhetoric surrounding the current run up to the 2008 presidential election. They are talked about on the floor of the House and Senate and in the editorial pages of the nation's newspapers.

And as critics look for examples, the "Iowa Rain Forest" has become the poster child of earmarks for many.

It's not going away -- even if Senator Grassley says they haven't met the terms of the grant. But it's really going to blow up if he says they have.

It looks like (see the content following the sub-heading below) Grassley-Ray-Townsend-Oman are gearing up an effort to pass the blame for this giveaway onto the Department of Energy (which was given the clerical job of administering the matching grant).

That dog won't hunt.

The media must get some answers from the Senator. This may have been our $50 million of money, but it was his project, his use of his power as a U.S. Senator on behalf of Ray-Townsend-Oman, his sneaking through an earmark with no debate, that brings us to where we are today.

The basic question for the Senator is: Knowing of the project's inability to raise money, knowing that it does not have $50 million cash on hand, knowing that even if it did it would still need to raise an additional $50 million to go ahead with construction (when it has not been able to raise a dime in 10 years), therefore knowing that even if you give them the $50 million it still won't be enough to insure the project will be built, knowing that its own consultants told the promoters they would need at a minimum a structure more than 50% larger than what they've now scaled their plans down to if they were even to have a problematical prayer of breaking even, knowing that most independent economists believe the project cannot produce sufficient cash flow to sustain itself (thus leaving it to either never get constructed, or having been constructed quickly close, or perpetually draw upon public funds for subsidy), why do you believe, today, that your $50 million earmark of taxpayers' money for this project is a wise use of taxpayers' dollars?

Subsidiary questions are: (1) Do you personally agree with and support the judgment that the project has met the terms of what you had in mind as a "matching grant" -- especially given the facts detailed above? If the project has neither $50 million in cash on hand, or pledges for that amount of cash that can be immediately called, what is the rationale for concluding they have "matched" your grant?
You can't buy materials and construct a structure on the basis of promises of some ill-defined "in-kind services" to be provided at some undesignated time in the future. Where do you think the additional $100 million (and preferably more) is going to come from? Do you agree that this judgment call is your responsibility, or are you washing your hands of the decision and taking the position that it is solely up to the Department of Energy? If so, how do you justify that stance?

(2) What is your position with regard to the "missing" roughly $3 million? Was it your intention that the initial $50 million grant was to be used for construction, or did you intend it as a gift that Oman could draw on whenever he wanted for whatever he wanted -- even though all signs pointed to a substantial likelihood the project would never be completed as originally proposed (indeed, your original earmark assumed it would be built in Coralville -- one of many Iowa cities that ended up rejecting it)? If it is concluded that the terms of the "match" have not been met will that $3 million be returned to the U.S. Treasury or do you consider it just a $3 million gift to a friend? If you conclude that the terms of the match have been met, do they need to match $50 million (since they will have received that amount: $3 million plus an additional $47 million), or do they only need to match the $47 million and we'll just forget about the $3 million?

Only Iowa's media can put these questions to Senator Grassley and then report his answers -- or his refusal to answer. Let's hope and pray they do this for us.

November 27/28 EXTRA: Oman Claims $50 Million Cash on Hand. David Oman, CEO and and CPO (chief publicity officer) of what State29 persists in calling "Earthpork," announced November 27 that "an array of sources coming together as a confluence" -- like this week's line-up of Saturn, Venus and Mercury -- is going to occur in time to make the deadline for this "very complex project" -- although "He would not provide specifics about where the $48 million matching funds are coming from." (Nor, apparently, would he provide specifics about why a "$50 million match" is satisfied with $48 million -- given that the only reason there is only $47 or 48 million left is because he started to consume the $50 million before the terms of the grant had been met -- and, so far as is known, has no plan (nor demand from Senator Grassley) to pay that money back.) "Earthpark to Meet Funding Deadline," KCCI-TV8, November 27, 2007.

And see, Gregg Hennigan, "Rain forest crunch time; Earthpark, U.S. official optimistic as critical funding deadline nears," The Gazette, November 28, 2007, p. A1 (identifying source "Brian Quirke, a spokesman for the Department of Energy," and noting that the $300 million, $225 million, $180 million, $150 million project is now budgeted at $140 million).

Of course, if he doesn't have $50 million cash on hand, if after you blow away the smoke there's nothing but mirrors, promises, loans, "in-kind future services," already-planned roads, and so forth, Senator Grassley is going to have to come up with an even more imaginative explanation for why he is turning this $50 million sow's ear (mark) into a $100 million silk purse.

It's also necessary to note five other financial details.

1. This was originally a $300 million project. When it was reduced to $225 million, the project's own consultants warned that there were virtually no possibilities of economic viability unless it could market itself as "the world's largest" -- something that could not be accomplished with anything less than a $225 million structure. The plan has subsequently been reduced to a $180 million structure, and now to $150 million.

2. Even at $300 million -- twice the present plan -- there were serious questions raised by independent economists regarding the financial viability of such a project if it was located in a major population center such as Des Moines with easy access to both Interstates 80 and 35. Now it is proposed for the small town of Pella (population under 10,000), located 36 miles away from Des Moines and about as far from Interstate 80.

3. Aside from the original $10 million pledge from Ted Townsend, and the $50 million match from Senator Grassley, so far as is known the project has been unable to raise a single dime over the course of the last 10 years -- notwithstanding the network of contacts made possible by Iowa's present senator, and former Governor Bob Ray, among corporations, foundations and wealthy donors.

4. Thus, even if Oman does come up with $50 million cash on hand, and even with the match, and even if the $300 million project is thought to be acceptable as one-half that size, he will still need to find another $50 million from somewhere -- notwithstanding the extraordinarily failed record of fund raising during the past decade.

5. Finally, as serious as these up-front financing problems may be, they pale by comparison to the future, on-going financial problems in operating such a facility. If -- as many predict -- an adequate revenue stream is not forthcoming, who will pick up the slack, or what would be done with the project once it is closed.
There are, of course, many other categories of problems with Earthpark, but since the focus is on the financials this week, it is useful to keep these five points in mind.

# # #

Is there anyone left in America who is not aware of the decade-long dream of Ted Townsend and David Oman -- with the financial encouragement of a $50-million earmark from grateful federal taxpayers provided by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley -- to build a tropical rain forest under glass on Iowa's otherwise-unused, snow-covered corn fields in winter?

For those of us who have been blogging about, and otherwise following, this public relations spectacular and economic disaster over the past ten years, this is going to be a big week.

Why? Because the revised terms of Senator Grassley's generosity require that Oman come up with a matching $50 million grant by December 1, 2007, or lose the taxpayers' contribution. (Left unanswered is whether he will have to repay the two or three million he took from the fund to, in part, pay a generous salary to himself, before Grassley realized the spigot was open and closed it.)

State29, one of the most dedicated followers, bloggers and debunkers of this folly, is also counting the days. State29, "Earthpork: 7 Days Left," November 24, 2007.

And see Chris Woods, "Will Huckabee Support Earthpark?" Political Forecast: Iowa Politics and Beyond, November 27, 2007.

I began writing about this project in January 2001, and started a Web site February 2004 -- variously called, as the location and name of the project changed over the months and years, "Iowa Child," "Iowa Educational/Environmental Project," "Coralville Rain Forest," "Iowa Environmental Project," "The Environmental Project," and "Earthpark." (After having been rejected by over a half-dozen Iowa cities, it's now trying to take root in Pella, Iowa -- best known for tulips and many miles from any Interstate highway.)

Since that time I've published some 14 or more op ed columns along with another 15 lecture texts or other online pieces. The Web site now prints out at over 200 pages, and has links to the full text of hundreds of newspaper articles and other printed resources. It is presumably the most complete collection of material -- pro and con -- available anywhere on the Internet at a single site.

If this thing is new to you, and you're not inclined to research a couple hundred pages of Web site, here's one of those op ed columns, one that briefly mentions at least some of the history and problems associated with the project:

Time to Learn From What Works

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 20, 2006

The Press-Citizen thinks "Towns Should Take it Slow with Rain Forest" (Jan. 14). Most Iowans are taking the editorial board's advice.

Rain forest promoters may still make it somehow, somewhere in Iowa. Regardless, Ted Townsend, Bob Ray and David Oman have helped open Iowans' eyes to the possibilities, and pitfalls, of such attractions.

Will we learn from their mistakes? Only if we search the Internet for the formula and details of success stories, for "what works." In Iowa: Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Adventureland, Living History Farms, Ted Townsend's Great Ape Trust. Outside Iowa: Omaha's zoo, Atlanta's aquarium, Colonial Williamsburg, Disneyland.

Focus. Like a business emphasizing its "core competency," successful ventures usually have a focus, like the Great Ape Trust. The rain forest kept shifting focus from tourist attraction to school to research facility. (As blogger State 29 put it, "It's a floor wax. It's a dessert topping. It's whatever they want it to be.")

Community-based. Successful ventures grow bottom up, like Omaha's zoo, the Englert theater renovation, and Dubuque's "Envision 2010," rather than being imposed top down like the rain forest.

Logical location. Aquariums do best near oceans; Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. The Living History Farms, or Dubuque's Mississippi museum on the banks of that great river, gain significance from their location in Iowa. A rain forest does not.

Up-front financing. Home Depot's Bernard Marcus gave $200 million for Atlanta's aquarium. Omaha's zoo and Dubuque's museum are locally funded. Neither uses the debt financing that's caused other projects' downfall. Rain forest promoters went public without money in hand, had none from Iowa City-Coralville donors, and now talk of borrowing their matching grant.

Business plans. Entrepreneurs dream of success and fear failure. Venture capitalists and loan officers avoid losses by demanding details. Even so, one-third of each year's 800,000 new businesses fail within four years. Imagine the risks when promoters play with public money instead of their own. Without rain forest focus there couldn't be business plans. Without plans there couldn't be sufficiently detailed construction and operating budgets. Without details no one could evaluate the project's practicality, and deadlines kept slipping -- for nine years.

Cost overruns. Over-runs are common. Boston's "Big Dig" ran five times budget. So did the Englert ($1 million budget, $5 million cost). The Iraq war may end up 10 times projections ($2 trillion vs. $200 billion). How would rain forest overruns have been financed? Omaha zoo projects are completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Revenue streams. Construction costs are relatively easy. Operating costs five and ten years later are the problem. Successful Iowa attractions know attendance will range from 65,000 a year (Hoover Library) to 500,000 (Adventureland), and budget realistically. Disneyland may get 10 to 15 million, Colonial Williamsburg almost one million. But such numbers are mostly limited to multi-million-population urban centers. Many failing projects start with overly optimistic attendance projections -- like the rain forest's estimated 1.3 million annual visitors.

Realistic evaluation. The rain forest's fundamental problems have been obvious for four years. So why did so many public officials and mass media continue to emphasize "the 'Wow!' and the wonderful," virtually ignoring risks and realism? A skeptical venture capitalist asks questions and is called "a smart businessperson." Why, when citizens ask the same questions about the rain forest, are they called "naysayers" who "lack vision"?
Iowa has plenty of successful attractions throughout the state. There's no reason it can't have many more. But only if we remember the lesson of the Laser Center: "build it and they will come" only works in the movies. Only if we build solid financial foundations under our dreams. Only if we give more attention to revenue streams and operating costs than construction costs.

Iowa needs bold vision. Naysaying doesn't help; but rational analysis does. And when "the emperor has no clothes" we ignore the difference at our peril.
Hopefully, a week from today at least some of the evaporated $2-3 million will have been repaid, this project will be behind us, and the lessons it has provided will be put to good use by those with realistic plans for Iowa's future economic development.

Or . . .
Will Oman be able to pull a $50 million rabbit from his dilapidated hat during Earthpark's last week on death row?

Watch this space and see.

# # #

Joe Sharpnack editorial cartoon credits and background.

The following is excerpted from my entry in my Rain Forest Web site from the time when the project's public relations efforts warranted weekly Web site entries. This one is for "The Week Prior to May 15 [2006]."

The Week Prior to May 15 . . .

was an opportunity for David Oman to demonstrate, once again, the true public relations genius that he has brought to the rain forest project from the beginning. He managed to get newspapers to make front page news -- literally page one, column one, above the fold -- out of the name of the project.

There are much more serious challenges confronting the project. Moreover, it has gone through numerous name changes during the nine years of its existence, seemingly without the ability of its board and management to settle on one: Iowa Child, Iowa Environmental/Education Project, Iowa Environmental Project and the Environmental Project. Thus, the following news story would have involved questionable news judgment even if the announcement had involved the long-awaited "permanent name."

But it did not. The "news" was that, like a UFO siting, Oman had discovered "names rolling around [and] floating through the air." However, none of these have even been passed upon by the board, and only one was revealed at this time: "Earth Park."

"We've always said the Environmental Project is a placeholder, pending decisions such as financing and selecting a site," project director David Oman said Monday. "It has always been our intention to brand the project with a permanent name." Oman said a decision on a permanent name hasn't been made yet, but the name Earth Park has surfaced among officials whose communities are in the running for the project. "There are several names that people have suggested, and they are being tested," Oman said. "There are scientific ways of testing and less formal ways."

Board member Richard Johnson of Sheldahl said the Earth Park name was "put forward" within the past six months. "But the board hasn't gone forward with it yet," he said. . . . The board of directors will select a final site in mid-May or June, depending on when a meeting can be arranged, Oman said.

"We are working on a (few) major fronts: a site front, financing front and name front. It would be helpful to pull these fronts together at some point," he said. He did not say if a name would be announced when the site was selected. "There are names rolling around. There are names floating through the air. There are some very interesting ones. We are looking how to best package this up," Oman said.
Joe Sharpnack,, who holds the copyright on this editorial cartoon, captured the significance of the "floating" alternative name with his usual sharp wit and insight. The cartoon appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on May 11, 2006.

For it was only in the last sentence of the story that we were to learn, "The project remains contingent on selecting a site and financing." Given the project's current three-front challenge -- what Oman calls "a site front, financing front and name front" -- it would seem that "the greatest of these" (to borrow a Biblical triage) remains, as it has been for the past nine years, the "financing front." Brian Morelli, "Yet Another New Name? Earth Park Floating Around," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 9, 2006. (As the reader can tell from these excerpts, Morelli is a skilled, professional reporter who cannot be held responsible for either the assignments he receives, or the content of the interviews and handouts he has to turn into journalism. And yet he manages -- at least for the careful reader -- to get the story told.)
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Anonymous said...

Surprising that David Oman hasn't brought Wells Fargo on board...since his brother Mark is the EVP over there. On the other hand, perhaps it's not surprising.

Anonymous said...

You watch...Grassley will not kill this thing.

Townsend has given to too many politicians over the years for this to die. Townsend and Oman are like Wayne and Garth from Wayne's World.

This is a case study in how our political system is hopelessly corrupted by money.

Anonymous said...

You don't hear the good news stories for the most part about former or current Hawkeye players. That just isnt of interest to the local media for the most part. Here is a rare article from earlier in November pointing out Iowa's Academic All Americans. Iowa also has several ex-players doing very well. In the NFL and otherwise that are fine representations of the University. In the NFL you have all pros Aaron Kampan, Bob Sanders, and Nate Kaeding. You also have several others who have had solid careers including Casey Wiegman, Jared Devries, Colin Cole, Sean Considine, & Marcus Paschal among others. Outside of football you have Matt Whitaker who is a US Attorney, Chuck Hartlieb who is in finance in Des Moines. Mike Haight who runs the meat market in N Coralville. Robert Smith was or is a supervisor in Blackhawk County.

Most of the players go on to have normal productive lives, but of course the Press Citizen and it's corporate master Gannett don't want to cover that for the most part.