By David M. Feehan
Twenty years ago, a bright, young millionaire proposed an eye-popping idea for downtown Des Moines, Iowa: a 10-acre, under glass, rain forest. Now, Des Moines is a wonderful town, but not exactly a tourist mecca. What would a rain forest the size of four Walmarts do to downtown Des Moines?
Well, certainly it would consume acreage–an estimated 30 acres. And it would need power. As one consultant said, “When you pull the switch to turn this baby on, every light in Des Moines will dim.” But could a massive tourist attraction succeed in the middle of Iowa? My job was to find out. I was president of the downtown organization and the mayor asked me to staff a task force to evaluate a number of major projects being proposed–an arena, a convention center, a new library, a food and fiber center, and a sculpture garden, to name a few.
I identified a “brain trust” of specialists in several categories. One was a former Disney executive. He did some quick calculations. “You are in a market for a two-hour drive of 3 million people,” he began “Visitors need to depart home and get back in one day. You need a market of 12 million people to support this or you need to get people to come by air. And your airport isn’t big enough and you need 12,000 hotel rooms the day it opens and you only have 7,000.” The rain forest consultant projected annual attendance at 2 million, and the parking lot he proposed was dramatically too small. Furthermore, if Des Moines were to build the other facilities that were on the drawing board, well, we had better start building parking garages by the score.
The local community and civic leaders came to their senses. They determined that the arena, the convention center, and the other major projects were needed and made more sense with far less risk. They believed the Disney executive who projected the rain forest would have operating losses of $10 million annually. The rain forest was then proposed in Cedar Rapids, which made the same calculations Des Moines had. It then traveled to Iowa City, and then to Coralville. Despite a $50 million earmark by an Iowa senator, the project died a quiet death.
In 1989, a very popular Iowa-based firm contributed the saying, “If you build it, he will come.” Des Moines is very lucky and was very smart to choose projects that would serve the Iowa market. Des Moines was never going to be Orlando or Las Vegas. If we had built the rain forest, we would still be wondering what to do with an empty, domed, 400,000-square-foot facility and loads of empty hotel rooms and parking ramps.
Be careful what you wish for and be honest with yourselves about who you are. Today, downtown Des Moines is one of the most successful downtowns in the nation. Come see for yourself. But don’t look for a rain forest. Instead, go to Dyersville and see the Field of Dreams.
David M. Feehan is president of Civitas Consultants, LLC.