Friday, August 15, 2008

Earthpark, Editorials and Beating Dead Horses

August 15, 2008, 10:25 a.m.

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"UI Sexual Assault Update," July 19-August 9, and related Web page, "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08," July 19-present.
"Earthpark: 'Pretty Quiet Phase; No Timetable to Speak of,'" August 14, 2008.
"Media's Medicines," August 12, 2008.
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"Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008.
"Police Accidental Shootings -- Of Themselves," May 9, 2008.
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And see, "500+ Posts Index"

Beatings Prove Ineffective in Resuscitating Dead Horses

Yesterday The Gazette reported the demise of Earthpark. See, Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: 'Pretty Quiet Phase; No Timetable to Speak of,'" August 14, 2008.

Today it's making an editorial effort to beat some life back into this dead horse. Editorial, "Earthpark's Fade is Lamentable," The Gazette, August 15, 2008, p. A4.

Here are some excerpts:

Visionary. Bold. Spectacular. . . . We don't enjoy the prospect of giving up on this idea [that] represented the type of forward thinking that the Vision Iowa Program was intended to generate . . . a world-class attraction that would provide a big economic boost to the state . . .. [Notwithstanding the reduction from a $350- to a $140-million project it is] still a grandiose endeavor. . . . [T]he [Senator Grassley $50-million earmark] grant was rescinded in December when the developers missed a deadline to provide matching support. . . . Earthpark's demise in Iowa . . . should be lamented. . . . We'll likely never know if it could have worked here. At the least, we hope . . . entrepreneurial Iowans won't be discouraged about dreaming and putting big ideas on the table again."
Where does one begin with this kind of boosterism, cheer leading "analysis"?

Before I start on that, there's a related matter worthy of comment.

Earthpark's online listing of its board of directors includes "Joe Hladky/Gazette Communications," now identified on The Gazette's editorial page as "Chairman of the Board" of Gazette Communications (having formerly been President and Chief Executive Officer).

To the best of my knowledge this association has never been revealed over the course of the last ten years in any article or editorial praising Earthpark.

Don't get me wrong; I had tremendous regard for this locally-owned newspaper-television media company as an FCC commissioner, and I still do. The civic leadership it offers eastern Iowa in general, and Cedar Rapids in particular, is remarkable -- as is its news coverage, especially for a paper with a subscription base of its size. It's been innovative technologically, as with its online version. KCRG-TV is my TV station of choice, and our family has long subscribed to the hard copy version of The Gazette. Obviously, much-to-all of this can fairly be credited to Mr. Hladky, the other executives, and editors.

But I do think an undisclosed association of a newspaper executive as a board member of a local project being reported on, and editorialized about, is at least mildly troublesome.

The Society of Professional Journalists' "Code of Ethics" provides, in part:

Journalists should:

— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— [S]hun . . . service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
I'm not going to pass judgment on whether what was done was technically "unethical." I'll leave that to The Gazette's ombudsperson, journalism professors, professionals, and others. Though I rather suspect the paper would not permit a reporter to cover a story about a controversial proposal of an organization while simultaneously serving as a board member of that very organization.

But I have and will comment about the analysis in this morning's editorial. Much of what I have to say about it can be found in my Earthpark/Iowa Child Web site, and the 30 or so publications of mine to which it links (along with the hundreds of news stories and commentaries of others), and yesterday's blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: 'Pretty Quiet Phase; No Timetable to Speak of,'" August 14, 2008.

Much of what I've questioned about Earthpark's first ten years is illustrated in the editorial.

* The issue here is not whether something is "visionary. Bold. Spectacular" and "forward thinking." It's not about the desirability of encouraging "entrepreneurial Iowans" to dream and put "big ideas on the table." Of course we need "visionary" ideas -- at least those that can pass "the laugh test" (which the rain forest failed).

* The issue involves the next step: the evaluation of those ideas; are they economically, technologically, environmentally and politically feasible? Is there local support -- for the idea, and the provision of the necessary money? Is that money in hand to complete the project? Is there a clear focus of purpose? Is there a business plan, and if so is it realistic in its projections of a cash flow sufficient to keep the project in operation? Not only did the rain forest fail these tests as well, the cheer leaders and editorial writers (including this morning's) failed to even acknowledge that such issues were relevant. It was sort of, "Damn the torpedoes; it's visionary; full steam ahead; let's do it."

* To say that "the developers missed a deadline" is misleading at best; it sort of suggests that of course they had the $50 million match in the bank, but somehow overlooked filing some paperwork on time. More accurate would be to acknowledge that the developers were unable to find a single Iowan, or Iowa community, willing to contribute a single dime to this project over the course of ten years' of vigorous fund raising efforts (beyond the seed money from the guy with the idea, Ted Townsend).

* Similarly, to characterize this scaled back proposal as "still a grandiose endeavor" is also misleading. It fails to acknowledge that the project's own consultants advised the board that it would need to create "the world's largest" -- requiring about a $350-million structure -- to have a prayer of making a go of it. A $140-million indoor rain forest is virtually doomed to financial failure and is scarcely a "grandiose endeavor."

* Finally, there's the matter of the use of taxpayers' money. If an entertainment/educational venue can't make a go of it with marketplace forces, if owners, investors, venture capitalists and banks' loan officers aren't willing to put money into it, why should taxpayers? But I won't go on about that.

Boosterism and "vision" have their place. So do realism, analysis, detailed business plans, and a close watch over taxpayers' money. The mainstream media and public officials do no one a favor when they concentrate exclusively on the former while ridiculing those who insist on going through the latter.

# # #


Anonymous said...

Earthpark is dead. It's dead and no amount of Gazette editorializing is going to bring it back. No amount of self-righteous blogging is going to bury it deeper.

I would posit that the Gazette is not the only one beating the proverbial dead horse, Mr. Johnson.

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Anonymous said...

I don't agree that Mr. Johnson is beating a dead horse. At the very least, this particular horse, which is still neighing and snorting about possibly moving out of state, does not realize it is dead. Neither does the Gazette editorial, which could barely bring itself to acknowledge the reality that the project won't be built in Iowa. And speaking as someone who lives in central Iowa, the DES MOINES REGISTER, a former Earthpark cheerleader, is maintaining a deathlike hush on the subject. Unless REG readers stumble upon Gazette coverage, they might well believe that the project is still going to happen in Pella, somehow, some way. And by pointing out the cozy relationship between the editorial and the Earthpark board, Mr. Johnson has performed a public service for which I thank him.