An Oral History of the Indoor Rainforest Iowa Almost Built
It's not a jungle out there. But it almost was -- and that made all the difference.
If people had just listened to Ted Townsend, heir to the Frank-O-Matic automatic sausage-linking machine fortune, one of the manmade wonders of the world would be in Coralville, Iowa (Pop. 20K). Picture this:
A glass dome a sixth of a mile long and 20 stories tall buffers a lush canopy against the windswept winters. Beneath it free-roaming bonobos, toucans, sloths, and piranha, shanghaied from the jungles of Central and South America, form a free-wheeling menagerie among ferns and vines and hundred-foot-tall-trees reaching towards the expansive sky.
That is what Townsend wanted, what some big thinkers back east wanted, and what the U.S. Senate thought might be crazy enough to work. But as his decade-long effort to realize his dream stalled out, Townsend sunk his money and his reputation into ground better suited to corn than orchids. But failure doesn’t make the effort less interesting or meaningful. The Iowa rainforest project attracted top architects, federal lobbyists, and local scorn. Derided as an extravagant pork-spending project, it was intended to give the state a landmark while helping researchers study vanishing ecosystems. Instead, the state wound up with a new hotel, some outlet stores, and — remarkably — a small city in the middle of an economic resurgence.
This is the story of the doomed rainforest project, told by people who fought over that ultimate white elephant.
Part I: The Dream
Probably every American who has eaten a hot dog has eaten Townsend trimmings. Ted’s father, Ray Townsend, died in 2014 at the age of 97 holding more than 120 patents — most concerned with meat processing — including a profitable device that could strip rind from pork and stuff a hot dog at fantastic speeds. At one point, 95 percent of all U.S. hot dogs were plumped with Townsend’s pork. The family became very wealthy.
Ted Townsend wanted his legacy to go beyond processed meats. Beginning in the late ‘90s, he began advocating a pet venture that became known in his home state as the Iowa Child Project — a rainforest enclosure inspired by his many trips to visit African wilderness as a young man. Originally hoping to build in his hometown, Townsend approached Des Moines developers, Boston architects, and federal and state legislators to find a suitable site. Still high off the Clinton-era economic growth and less than a decade removed from Field of Dreams, maybe it seemed natural to see an Iowan evangelizing impractical blueprints. The project could most kindly be called unorthodox, but it was not without legitimate underpinnings. Similar ideas had been proposed in Japan and England, albeit on a much smaller scale. And when he wanted someone to realize his plan, he found a partner in a Harvard-educated architect who had tackled aquarium projects in Baltimore, Japan, Tennessee, Portugal, and elsewhere.
Peter Sollogub, architect, Boston’s Cambridge Seven Associates: Townsend grew up with this love of the rainforest — this was really his passion. He was initially talking to the city manager of Des Moines, and they went around various zoos and aquariums to see what an environment would be like to foster this vision, to give Iowa a rainforest and rousing ecosystem. Apes were a key part of it. He was fascinated by them. And his passion was to explore the rainforest not as one has typically done, with the forest floor, but through mid- and upper levels of tree camps.
I had been involved in a project in Edinburgh where the idea was to make a rainforest exhibit for the government, and we had come up with the idea of doing this in the upper canopy. We developed the design. We actually looked at doing another version in Japan. But the vision was the same: A visitor could go up to the canopy 60 to 100 feet in the air. It was something that had never been done before. But we didn’t know about (Townsend) and he didn’t know about us.
Steve Zumbach, an attorney with the Des Moines Partnership Executive Committee, which evaluated the proposal on behalf of the city: Ted came to us with a project that was so unique and so large it was hard for most of us to understand how it would be done to the pragmatic notion of Iowans. At first the idea was to put it in Des Moines. But that concern just couldn’t be overcome.
Sollogub: I was part of that first meeting Ted had selling this when he came to Cambridge Seven. He explained his vision. I sat there with Ted, and we said we have something exactly like what you’re talking about. And we went out and got some images in Edinburgh. And what we’d done in Japan. And we put up a haphazard presentation together. It was very weird because we ourselves were thinking that way. So I put together some drawings for a Des Moines site. It was a mixed-use facility attached to the rain forest, a school, and a hotel. This was for a visitor to stay there.
Ted always had this Don Quixote vision. I don’t think it was ever about him; it was about the project. He really wanted it for children in Iowa. He told us how he’d taken these trips to Africa with his family as a kid and how he was just fascinated with the monkeys. He was fascinated by how much we could learn from them and how much they were learning from us. As this planning went on, we went down to Georgia and saw a show with primates being done there. He was fascinated by bonobos. And he wanted to bring that home and share that with people. He never even wanted his name to be on anything, ever. Never once mentioned calling this “The Ted Townsend Project.” That’s one of the reasons they settled on the name “Iowa Child Project,” really selling that this was about education. He tried over and over for a few years to get this done in Des Moines but he just couldn’t find a way to make it work there. So, we started looking for a good home for it.
Zumbach: Maybe the learning that comes from something like this, an idea maybe too large or that can’t be done how you want to do it, can you restructure it to a level that makes it work?
PART II: The Hub of Hospitality
The city of Coralville is tucked between big brothers Cedar Rapids, where the economy is propped up by a Quaker Oats mill, and Iowa City, swarmed with 31,000 students every fall. In 2000, during a boom, Coralville announced it would be the future site of the only living, breathing, functional rainforest between Cascadia and Mexico.
By this time, Townsend had spent a reported $4 million of his own money developing the plan. But that was barely a down payment for a total cost now estimated at $280 million. Coralville agreed to kick in $25,000 per acre to buy an 85-acre site; the state legislature promised $75 million in state funds from the Vision Iowa Program; and Townsend committed $10 million. Federal grants and private donors were expected to cover the remaining, uh, nine-figure balance. Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who’s still in office, said he’d look for support. The initial five-year plan was for lots of fundraising, followed by 18 months of construction and a year for plants and animals to get acclimated before the park opened.
Jim Fausett, then mayor of Coralville, now retired: At that time, Coralville was really in a period of development. We were kind of on the move. We don’t have a lot of overlarge companies here. For a long time, being just next to the University of Iowa, we were kind of known as this hub of hospitality, but we were small. People were interested in seeing the city become more businesslike. And the economy was a lot better back then — there was more credit available, building was a good investment, and the city got a lot of benefit out of that. That’s when Ted came to us.
John Lundell, current Coralville mayor, former city councilman: Boy, they were slick. We had this big industrial area with not much on it and they told us they were going to make it more attractive and inviting. Townsend introduced himself to us. He made some very strong claims about the private-sector funding he had. And (Iowa Senator) Chuck Grassley had a mind-blowing amount of money secured for a project like that. Townsend needed a pledge for infrastructure from us. They made a good sell that they had the money to pull it off. I think he said he had GE as a major contributor.
Fausett: I thought it was a very good idea. It seemed to me it should work. The main thing was just from a tourism interest, there would’ve been enormous benefit.
Lundell: Townsend was a very unusual person. We met a time or two, but he had full-time staff to interact with us mostly. He was intriguing. By then he’d developed this monkey facility in Des Moines where he could raise apes. Yeah, some people couldn’t get their minds around it, a rainforest in eastern Iowa, but he had done his homework.
Sollogub, the architect: So Coralville agreed on the project and they had a great location for it, and from there things got into this legislative approach. Ted and some partners — David Oman, who’s in development in Des Moines — they got out spearheading. This went beyond the city. They had national elements, lobbyists looking for money. And I was doing the design work, but I also came down to Coralville to get this taken through the public referendum process. I thought it was really well accepted. I remember the major public announcement about the project was early. It was Sept. 10, 2001. And I flew down to Coralville and we made a big presentation and I think the people were really behind it. Then I flew off that next morning as the world changed.
Dean Oakes, Iowa City coin dealer, landowner in Coralville: Yeah, I forgot all about that but I guess I did own some land out there. I ended up opening a car museum on it. But at the time, ex-Governor Bob Ray was on the Iowa Child Project board they were putting together. I don’t know who the nucleus was, but they invited a bunch of people, me included, out to this motel in Coralville. They had this pool attached looking out over a restaurant, and this buffet for all of us set up. I didn’t talk to everyone, but I guess it was mostly people who owned land. And they start talking to me about what I want for my land out there by Interstate 80. I don’t know what price I came up with. Something like $17,000 an acre. I thought, “Well, it’s a little unusual, but progress is progress.” I don’t think there were too many skeptics there that day. But it didn’t take long for opinions to start veering. Iowa has pretty hard winters, you know? I saw a sketch of the place in the paper later and I thought, “How you going to keep that thing heated?”
Sollogub: The biggest challenge was developing an envelope that would allow the rainforest to grow and thrive in a totally different environment. The second challenge was actually plants themselves. You have to get trees essentially 100 feet tall to be a part of this. The way we did it was we developed armatures for artificial trees — but they’re really resources. They’re placeholders for the trees. And trees in the rainforest have multiple species that grow around them. So these trees, their limbs and everything, it’s almost like having metal bones, if you will, in your fingers, and then you transplant skin on. The leaves and various plantings would essentially comprise the large trees and meanwhile the small ones would grow. We have live species so we have to put them in an environment conducive to their own well-being. The material is essential a layered system, a giant quilted coat that allows us to keep the outside temperature out and inside in.
How do you get people 100 feet in the air in the upper canopy and not have it be so terrifying that they don’t want to do it? And animals are free-roaming, so you can see them without interacting but let them still have movement? People can circulate through and it truly is an ecosystem. Yeah, it is like building Jurassic Park.
PART III: What the Hell Are You Thinking?
The Iowa Child Project organized a board and scaled back its concept, but as the reality of construction set in, the public took notice. The total project cost was revised down to $250 million, still a whopper of a check to cash. Des Moines’s David Oman — a former cable television executive and political insider — came on as the Iowa Child Institute’s vice chairman and COO. He pushed the opening date back to 2007 and rebranded as Vision Iowa. A private fundraising goal was announced: a mere $125 million.
Public goodwill, meanwhile, was buckling. A group called Iowans for Responsible Development started up and commissioned a study from a University of Iowa environmental sciences master’s student that found most locals didn’t understand what the project was supposed to be. A Springfield, Iowa, woman named Clara Oleson founded Stop A Vast Error. She blasted the fundraisers’ promises of an ecological valhalla.
“It’s reports like this which give the use of federal and government funds a bad name,” Oleson told local journalists. “It’s filled with jargon, thin ideas, and boosterism, and these are not components of a constructive campaign to educate people.” Popular support was drying up just as the project needed it most.
Lundell, current Coralville mayor: There were a lot of arguments breaking out. I still supported it, but some people thought it was an absurd use of land. And from the time we agreed to do the project to the eventual end of it, it was all about getting those private donors. You need to sell the public to do that.
Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 13, 2000, Nathan Hill, staff writer: Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, who began pitching the Iowa Child idea 5 years ago, held a public forum in Coralville’s library Tuesday night. He was barraged by questions from people not as excited with the proposed indoor rain forest and educational facility as he is.
What effect would the project have on Iowa’s release of greenhouse gases, considering its $3 million annual energy bill and the millions of cars that will be driving to get there? How will the already stressed Silurian Aquifer, which supplies much of the region with water, be affected by the water needed for a 5-acre rainforest? Why not use the $280 million to send Iowa’s teachers to the real rainforest? How will the institute prevent exotic plant species from escaping the facility and disrupting Iowa ecosystems? Won’t the Iowa Child’s top-down effort undermine local nature centers?
Those were among the many questions raised by the nearly 50 people at last night’s forum. The attendees’ sentiments were generally summed up by Iowa City resident Dan Eccher: “Why build a rainforest in Iowa? It’s a hare-brained idea.”
“The fact that your eyebrows go up when you think of a rainforest in Iowa is the reason people are going to come,” Townsend said.
PART IV: All or Nothing
Townsend was right about eyebrows raising, but not for the reasons he hoped. Three years out from announcing the Coralville site, Grassley boasted that he’d issued an ultimatum to House members who’ve balked at spending $70 million of federal money on the project as part of a green bond project package. The rainforest is one of five projects up for the bonds — along with mixes of shopping and hotel developments in New York, Atlanta, Louisiana, and Colorado. The other four members of his committee working on the packages will back everything except the rainforest earmark, but Grassley vowed to kill all the projects if they wouldn’t back Iowa. “We take all the projects, or we dump all of them,” he announced. The project won $50 million in federal funds so long as it could match that through private donors. D.C.’s Citizens Against Government Waste labeled the rainforest a laughable example of frivolous spending, especially shameful given that Grassley sanguinely approved billions in spending for the still-young Iraq war. Townsend’s idea balloons from passion project to national punchline. An April 2004 editorial in The New York Times wrote of it: “Some bad ideas simply refuse to die.”
Sollogub, the architect: I can’t speak to the money end. Because my own view, it was not about bringing money into Iowa and having these eight, 12, or 20 guys just take federal funds. It was really about the project. Ted never got a nickel on this.
Lundell, current Coralville mayor: I do have questions about what happened with that federal earmark. There was a board making a lot of money for their services promoting this. But once we found out about Ted looking into other cities while promising he had backers ready to go, it broke the trust. It didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere.
Sollogub: As crazy as it was, people were excited by it. There were issues in terms of taxes and traffic, but the basic concept, as whacko as it was in many ways — there was something special there. Where it met its downfall was ultimately the matching funds. They tried.
Zumbach, Des Moines attorney: The art of ideas is, you probably don’t get it right the first time. You have to adjust it to make things work, and that’s not what happened. It was so massive. There were pieces of it conceptually that were liked. The idea that in an urban center you can have a connection with nature in an environment so unlike your own — that’s a wonderful experience. But if you can’t deliver the experience and maintain the experience it’s just an idea. And in the world I live in, it’s about getting things done.
Lundell: I had been backing it, but when it came down to decide whether the city council wanted to sever our relationship with the project after so long, it went 2-2. I was on the council and ended up being the deciding vote. When Ted learned we were done with it, it was a combination of pissed off and disappointed. He saw the end of this $50 million earmark. They shopped it around more — Pella (Iowa) said they would take it in — but it wasn’t taking off anywhere. I’m still not sure how some of the people involved in planning and lobbying for this were paid. Did they spend money as soon as they were getting it? Was he spending out of pocket? I don’t know. As it was, we ended up buying all that land in negotiated purchases anyway. And it’s come a long way. We’ve got shopping out there now, restaurants, a luxury hotel. The city got its development.
Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial board, April 25, 2007: In 2006, after Pella had been selected as the new site, The Gazette said Iowans should take a fresh view on the project and give its leaders the benefit of the doubt. We urged Earthpark officials to communicate with their partners; to provide specifics about support, development, and management of the project; and to meet deadlines.
Now, yet another year later on, not much has changed. No final agreement between Earthpark officials and the city of Pella has been reached, no private contributors have been named, and no amount of private funding in hand has been identified. In January, Grassley put his foot down about extending the December deadline for Earthpark officials to secure matching funds for the $50 million federal grant.
For 10 years, [David Oman] has been told that the way private developments work is that the developer secures private support and then comes to the state to seek supplemental funding. But as always, consideration of funding has been based on the existence, not the hint, of significant private support.
PART V: A Better Iowa
In 2006, after Coralville stopped tilting at windmills, other cities vied for the project. In central Iowa, Pella, population 10,250, won the right to call itself the new future home of the rainforest. But the deadline for funding to match the federal cash expired in 2007, and Grassley, perhaps worrying about an upcoming election year, announced he wouldn’t fight for an extension, and Congress rescinded the appropriation. In 2008, FOIA’d U.S. Department of Energy documents finally revealed the project’s biggest private donor. Townsend had pledged $32.9 million of his own money.
Sollogub, the architect: The loss to me is it was such a visionary project. I’ve never done anything quite like it. The romance of it has never been approached. Do you know about the aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee? People were very skeptical at the time. Inland Chattanooga? They thought, “Who would do it if it’s not on a waterfront?” To put it on this little river? Without fresh water, nobody would think it was possible. But it shaped Chattanooga in terms of its growth and it has been a success. That’s what Ted was trying to do, but his vision was even bigger.
Zumbach, Des Moines attorney: The dreamers are important. I like Ted. No one I know has recently talked to Ted, no. The last time I saw him was three years ago. He’s a very private man.
Des Moines developed, too. Ted’s project and things he did to encourage the city’s development were in the cauldron that brewed up the advances we’ve had. Would I put it in the top 10 of contributions? No, but top 25. We’ve had a housing boom, a lot of businesses have started in the downtown area. We’ve done very well in the last 10 years.
Sollogub: I understand their importance, but there’s nothing romantic about shopping, a chain restaurant. And I don’t think people fully know how important this work can be. The world is changing. We have ecosystems eroding every day. We have habitats and species lost forever. As that continues, finding ways to re-create and preserve those places is going to be more and more attractive in ways we probably don’t understand now. This could’ve become a living laboratory for extraordinary work. And it’s really sad to me, we lost that chance.