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The Elbert Files: Our merry-go-round


I was at the drinking fountain in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park when I saw my old friend K.C. admiring Keith Haring’s colorful sculpture of three dancing figures.

Haring was a 1980s graffiti artist who used his talent to draw attention to AIDS before dying of  the disease in 1990.

His brightly colored sculptures are displayed nationwide. In Des Moines, the merry-go-round style of his rainbow-colored stick figures was an instant hit when they were installed at the Pappajohn park in 2010.

As I approached, K.C. turned and said: “You know, it would have been right over there.”

“What would have been right over where?” I asked.

“Ted Townsend’s rainforest,” he replied. “It was going to be 20 stories tall on Walnut Street between 11th and 15th streets. It was the late-1990s version of what was going to save downtown.”

He paused, then added: “All the talk about wanting to build a $50 million baseball theme park with government money in eastern Iowa reminds me of what a boondoggle the rainforest would have been. Remember how Chuck Grassley lined up $50 million in federal money before the whole thing collapsed.”

“It was a bad idea that seemed good at the time,” I confessed.

“By the way,” I added, “it’s not a baseball theme park. It’s more like a bunch of baseball and softball diamonds with a hotel and restaurant.”

“Even worse,” K.C. said. “Without rides, who do they think will come?”

“They’re counting on baseball teams from peewee leagues on up,” I said.

“The park would host regional tournaments and concerts,” I said. “They seem to think the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie will create a sense of history that will pull in fans and teams who will want to stick around and play a few games of their own.

“What history?” he replied. “The whole thing is fiction. Is that what they’re teaching in school now?”

“No,” I replied, “but it sometimes seems like things are headed that way.

“You are right about one thing,” I continued. “The whole idea is based on a bunch of projections that anyone with half a brain knows won’t work. Just like the rainforest.”

I mentioned a recent Des Moines Register article by Tyler Jett that quoted two experts who said the money part does not add up. One guy said there is not enough population within easy driving distance to make the thing work; the other expert pointed out that most of the projected revenue would come from an annual Major League Baseball game at the field.

“But that’s already in doubt,” I said, adding that this year’s major league game at the Field of Dreams drew 3.1 million TV viewers, which is about half as many as last year.

“That’s a lot for baseball,” K.C. said. “But the curve is headed in the wrong direction. Next year, it could be half of this year.”

“There won’t be a next year,” I said. “At least not yet. The MLB guys are holding off on committing to another game until they see what gets built.

“That’s where you and I come in.”

“I assume that means the whole thing is based on tax dollars?” K.C. grumbled.

“Pretty much,” I replied.

“Of the $80 million they need to build it, at least $45 million will come from state and local governments.”

I explained that state government already contributed $11 million last year to build sewer and water lines and that Gov. Kim Reynolds has now promised another $12.5 million. That’s on top of the $6 million she’s giving to the “Field of Dreams” TV series, which lost its broadcast platform immediately after she announced the $6 million gift.

“If I understand,” K.C. summarized, “our governor has committed $29 million of our tax dollars to build facilities for a baseball myth that is based on a fictional farmer who heard a ghost say, ‘If you build it, he will come.’”

Turning back to the Haring sculpture, K.C. said, “That’s a much bigger merry-go-round than these over-the-rainbow boys could ever dream up.”


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