Thursday, August 14, 2008

Earthpark: 'Pretty Quiet Phase; No Timetable to Speak of'

August 14, 2008, 7:45 a.m.

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"It Never Died," Said He

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he.
"Joe Hill," and see Wikipedia, "Joe Hill," for "the rest of the story."

Joe Hill was killed by firing squad, and yet lives on in the passions and songs of labor activists.

Earthpark -- aka "The Iowa Child Project," "Coralville, Iowa, Rain Forest," "Iowa Environmental/Education Project," "Iowa Environmental Project," and simply "The Environmental Project" -- an unfunded proposal for an indoor rain forest attraction in Iowa, was pitched to, and turned down by (sometimes more than once) Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Des Moines, Dubuque, Grinnell, Iowa City, Riverside, and Tiffin. Eventually landing somewhere under a tulip bed in Pella, now even Pella's "city officials . . . have not heard from Earthpark's representatives for several months [and have] put no money toward the project."

Notwithstanding this decade-long history that would have been at least discouraging to mere mortals, and thought to have been equally dead from the financial equivalent of a firing squad (its inability to match a $50 million earmark from Senator Chuck Grassley), Earthpark appears to be as alive as Joe Hill in the passions of its cheerleaders.

The Gazette brings us this odd "man bites rain forest" story in this morning's paper. Gregg Hennigan, "Vanishing Rain Forest; To Keep the Earthpark Dream Alive, Backers Would Consider Leaving Iowa," The Gazette, August 14, 2008, p. A1 (and source of the quote, above).

Although Hennigan quotes Earthpark CEO David Oman as acknowledging that he, financial backer Ted Townsend, and their Earthpark board are in a "pretty quiet phase" that has "no timetable to speak of," they remain in existence and "have not given up on the project."

Indeed, he quotes board member Linda Neuman as saying, "I think everyone on the board just thinks it's a terrific project and it's kind of a shame that it hasn't gotten legs here in Iowa." He indicates she also believes that "it's possible Earthpark could move to a different state" and that "the board has not discussed abandoning the project."

Although I'm described in Hennigan's story as a "critic" of the project -- and I can understand how one might get that impression -- I have thought of my role as more one of asking questions, and attempting to extract through the promoters' firewall lacking in transparency what I thought to be basic information about their proposal, than "criticism" as such. In fact, it's very hard to be either critical or supportive of anything without knowing what "it" is. As one critic put it, "It's a floor wax; it's a desert topping; it's whatever they want it to be."

I have written at great -- some might say excessive -- length about "Iowa Child/Earthpark" over the years. See the Web site, Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark," and its links to some 30 published and unpublished pieces of mine, along with 100s of media stories, reports, and comments of others. Needless to say, I'm not about to try to summarize all of that material in this little blog entry.

The project as been besieged with problems involving virtually all the fundamentals of such an undertaking.

* From the time Ted Townsend first thought of the idea (and pledged $10 million of his own money to it) until today there has been an ongoing shift in focus (e.g., tourist attraction, national research center, school, IMAX theater, teacher training facility, indoor rain forest camp ground, with animals, without animals) -- so it's been hard to know at any given point in time just exactly what they are talking about.

* Without a clear focus and project design it has been impossible to come up with a meaningful, realistic business plan (i.e., plans for coming up with the grants to sustain a national research facility are very different from realistic plans for raising enough admission income from visitors to sustain the operation of a "tourist attraction").

* Notwithstanding their own consultants' advice that they needed to have "the world's largest" whatever to have a prayer of getting enough visitors -- roughly a $300-350 million project -- as the focus and project shifted over time so did the construction budget, to $225, then $180, and now apparently $140 million, thereby making the possibility of financial viability ever less likely.

* The projected operating costs would have required that every Iowa man, woman and child -- from newborn babe to the terminally ill -- pay full fare at the gate at least once every two years for the entirety of their lives. To expect every Iowan to visit even once is a bit optimistic; to expect them to return with the regularity of migrating birds seemed to most economists to be wildly unrealistic.

Even though continuing operating costs were the most serious problem, most observers ignored it. They chose to focus on construction costs instead.

* But in fact the failure to raise those costs told an even more dramatic story. Notwithstanding the involvment of one former (and very popular) Iowa governor, Bob Ray, as board chair, another candidate for governor (David Oman), the Chair of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee (Chuck Grassley), prestigeous board members and consultants, the backing of one of Iowa's wealthiest business persons (Ted Townsend), access to the nation's Republican Party leadership, the CEOs of the nation's largest corporations and foundations, not to mention the Iowa business community, and widespread support from the state's newspapers and elected officials -- they have been unable to obtain one bankable dime, from anybody, during the past ten years!
The question raised by Gregg Hennigan's story is: "OK, so they forfeited the $50 million Grassley grant; but has anything changed during the past year or so to suggest improvement on any of these fronts?" And the answer, sadly (or happily, depending on one's perspective) must be, "No" -- or at least not on the basis of anything the promoters have revealed to us during the interim.

Something I have found as mysterious as it has been disappointing during this past decade has been the seeming willingness, indeed enthusiasm, of elected officials and editorial writers to sing the praises of Iowa Child/Earthpark over the years as "a good idea," worthy of taxpayers' money, without addressing the underlying issues I've briefly noted above.

Any project must first pass "the laugh test" (something Earthpark failed to do, from Dave Barry's columns, through editorial cartoons, to "West Wing," to Senator John McCain and Governor Chet Culver). There needs to be an initial reaction to "the idea" -- whether "Wow, that's a great idea!" or "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of." And I can understand how some might think an indoor rain forest to be "a good idea."

But it is totally irresponsible -- in my opinion -- for editorial writers and public officials to then leap to the conclusion that we ought to execute every "good idea" without even bothering to mention (let alone seeming to care about) the need for precise planning and focus, physical and technological feasability, a rational business plan, construction funds in hand at the outset, and reasonable prospects for perpetual funding of operations.

A zoo exhibit of pigs with the ability to fly would no doubt attract a goodly number of tourists. It is, in that sense, "a good idea." But it would be irresponsible to put a $50 million earmark of federal taxpayers' money into the project without, first, working through some of the rather obvious initial challenges; namely, where to find, or how to breed, such pigs.

Moreover, the economic picture has not been improving for attractions of this kind anywhere in the U.S. See, e.g., Tom Barton, "Living History Farms sells 40 acres to developer," Des Moines Register, August 13, 2008; Living History Farms, "About Living History Farms" ("In 1999, attendance reached 110,092 museum visitors"); David A. Fahrenthold, "Living-History Museums Struggle to Draw Visitors; Creativity Drives Changes in Hunt for Attendance," Washington Post, December 25, 2005, p. A3; Sonja Barisic, "A 'Revolutionary' idea to lure tourists," Associated Press/Deseret News, April 9, 2006 ("Colonial Williamsburg officials have blamed declining attendance in part on less focus on Colonial history in schools. Annual paid attendance fell from about 1.2 million in 1988 to 710,457 in 2005."); Bruce Courson, "Why Rural Museums Are Becoming Ancient History," Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2005, 12:01 a.m. EST ("It is a story increasingly common for rural Massachusetts museums within a day's drive of major metropolitan areas. Many have current paid attendance numbers that are nearing 50% of what they were three decades ago.")

I suspect a skeleton of Earthpark will continue as long as Ted Townsend continues to pay David Oman his generous salary, expenses and benefits. But surely at some point Townsend will come to see that he's getting far more return on his money from his "Great Ape Trust" -- a project that's in place, really does have some potential, and could use more of the financial support now going to Earthpark -- than trying to tether to Planet Earth his beautiful dream of a rain forest in a greenhouse.

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