Thursday, September 07, 2006

Not so Much

State 29 points out the Register's latest article equating the proposed fake rainforest in (fill in the blank) Iowa to the Eden Project in Cornwall:

Earthpark, the Iowa project, plans to pick a site for an indoor rain forest, aquarium and education center in Iowa later this month. The finalists are Pella and Riverside. The $155 million facility is expected to be under construction next year and open during the 2009-10 school year.

"You have to believe in it for it to work," Ellison said. "This whole place is about education, but not about sitting in a classroom," he said of Eden. "This is about changing hearts and minds. What kinds of citizens do we want? How can we engage people?"

Eden now employs 450 to 500 workers, and had as many as 600 workers during ramp-up in the indoor rain forest and education center, built in an old mine. The project has 2,500 vendors, many of which have agreed to energy-efficient work and other "sustainable" techniques in return for long-term contracts. Today, 83 percent of all catering supplies come from Cornwall.

"This is not just a tourist attraction," Ellison said.

Eden's annual economic impact of $250 million is about twice what Earthpark projects for the Iowa project, which is to be designed by the same firm that designed Eden, Grimshaw Architects.

"Because we have been so successful, we've determined that if you go for it, you can do it," Ellison said. "Success builds success."

Eden has exceeded attendance projections and drew 500,000 during its initial construction, before it opened.

"We are so enamored with what the team at Eden is doing," said David Oman, Earthpark's executive director.

The Iowa's Earth Park Child Project (What's the latest name again?) would like to draw on this comparison to support its projection that any fake rainforest built here will receive their estimate of one million visitors per year, which they claim will lead to a "ripple effect" of 2500 new jobs. In fact, their site makes the comparison obvious:

One of the comparable indoor rain forest exhibits in the world is the Eden Project located in Cornwall, England. Five hours from London in England's most rural country, attendance has far exceeded expectations. Approximately 500,000 visitors toured the site while it was under construction. One million eight hundred thousand people visited Eden Project in its first year of operation. The stable-year attendance is 1.2 million.

A "most rural" bit of country drawing over 1.2 million people per year to a fake rainforest. . . on the face of it, it sounds pretty comparable. But are we really talking apples to apples here? A little googling reveals that Cornwall might be a tad different from Iowa, with that whole "rural" thing being a bit misleading.

For one thing, it has an ocean. A surfable ocean, with sandy beaches and the whole shebang. From the BBC:

For more than 40 years, Cornwall has been known as the home to British surfing with Newquay in particular the breeding ground for national and international champions.

The waves which pound the Cornish coastline are created by deep Atlantic low pressure systems which unleash their powerful swells eastwards creating some of the best surfing conditions in Europe.

To prove the county's dominance in the sport, it boasts an impressive array of stars who not only have the respect of the world's top professionals, but also their peers in the local surfing scene.

And more than anywhere else, Newquay's Fistral Beach has been the arena where champions are made.

European number one and WCT contender Russell Winter, British number two Spencer Hargraves and former English champion Alan Stokes are just three surfers from the town who have fine-tuned their wave dance at the powerful beachbreak.

A nice pic:

It also has a castle or two, including this one, a Norman stone ringwork and bailey fortress, founded by Robert, Count of Mortain and home to Edward, the Black Prince:

I realize that Iowa is a nice place. Pella has pretty tulips, and Riverside now has a casino. But casinos are a dime a dozen and not too many people plan an entire vacation around a bulb festival. Okay, reality check time. The non-profit Denver aquarium cost $93 million to build and opened in 1999. It attracted 1 million visitors during its first year of operation. In Denver, a freaking tourist trap. It went downhill from there, and is now belly-up. What about other rainforests? The rainforest in Omaha keeps no separate figures, but the entire Omaha zoo, of which it is a part, only gets about 1.35 million. When the director of that institution was asked whether the rainforest itself is self-sustaining, he stifled a laugh and said: "These are very energy- and manpower-intense operations." He added that annual expenses easily can rise to $20 million: "That's where some of these stand-alone aquariums run into problems, is they run into these 200-plus support staffs because they had to put all the management in place, whereas we ... already have to zoo infrastructure that supports it." (NOTE: while the original March 21, 2004 Iowa City Press-Citizen story giving this quote has been removed from the web, Nicholas Johnson has preserved the text on his site. He has also preserved this Des Moines Register article comparing the projected attendance numbers to everything from the St. Louis Arch to the Louvre. It's very instructional.)

The project's site indicates it will bring a "ripple effect" of 2500 jobs to Iowa, based on 150 permanent jobs and 400 to 500 initial jobs that are construction only. I'm not so good at math, but that appears to me to be a rather large multiple. In fact, running a google search on the term "employment multipliers," I get websites like this one with enough math to make your head swim, but if you look at the figures the multiples range between 1.5 and 3.5, with multipliers of about 2 being most common. So how do we get 2500 jobs out of this project?

I agree with State, this is a load of bogus propoganda. Even though I can see the short-term benefits of getting those construction jobs on a small-town economy, these attendance and "ripple effect" numbers are inflated. So say the project gets put in Pella or Riverside, whichever comes up with the requisite $25 million. How are they going to recoup that money if and when the thing goes belly-up?

Talking last night with Don, he pointed out that I might be a bit behind the times on the latest news regarding financing. I did a bit of research, courtesy of FromDC2Iowa, and discovered that I am indeed behind the times: apparently, the Riverside casino is going to front the money, not the city at all. From the Press-Citizen article on the subject dated over a month ago (Shame on me, but I've got lots of good excuses. Buy me a beer and I'll be happy to tell you about them):

Riverside Casino and Golf Resort CEO 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.

As Professor Johnson of FromDC2Iowa points out, to use this to claim that the city won't expend any funds on the project may be premature, as the Foundation's money might be otherwise spent on schools or community improvement projects, the environmental impact of the building might create some expenses if (for example) the water table can't handle a rainforest, or if the business goes belly-up and needs to be demolished.

However . . .

I can see where this might make the project (gasp) potentially feasible.

Yes, I still think the attendance numbers are bogus, as are the numbers being batted around for "ripple effect" jobs. But if the city can work it so that money from the casino and the casino foundation foots the initial bill, and if the city can ensure that it's not on the hook if shortfalls occur in the casino funds or the proposed tax rebates, and if the city can further ensure that it is protected from direct liability if the attendance falls short and the project fails utterly (as opposed to indirect liabilities such as the costs of demolishing or renovating an empty building) then I suppose it's not so different from having a private investor foot the bill rather than the taxpayers themselves. Under those circumstances, I could be persuaded that the project can go forward. Caveat: I reserve the right to retain my opinion that a rainforest in Iowa is a rather silly idea. I would simply no longer feel it is a recipe for utter financial disaster on the part of the host. Under those limited circumstances, anyway.

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