Metro Moxie


Des Moines Gets Things Done

By Tim Schmitt, GR’08, ‘10

Brain drain is a concept with which the city of Des Moines—and the entire state of Iowa—is all-too familiar. The population of Des Moines has grown by more than 10,000 residents since 1990, but the number of 25–34 year olds in the city continues to fall as young people leave central Iowa seeking more fertile creative, social, and professional grounds. Nearly 30,000 of them left Iowa between 1995 and 2000.

Mike Draper was part of the exodus. Born and raised in Van Meter, he left central Iowa in 2000 to attend the University of Pennsylvania and planned to remain on the East Coast and start his own business.

“Growing up, everyone went to Iowa City for cultural things,” recalls Draper. “And the kids who ‘made it’ left Des Moines for bigger cities.”

After struggling to get his new T-shirt business off the ground in New York, Draper took another look at Des Moines in 2005 and saw a different city—one with new opportunities, one ripe with potential. He packed his bags and his entrepreneurial spirit and returned to open a shop in the burgeoning East Village—with little money and no business experience but plenty of big ideas.

“Everyone thanked me for adding to the community, for moving back, and that kind of positive energy can be just as helpful in keeping yourself going in the early years of running a company,” says Draper, now 31.

Beyond the encouraging words, Draper discovered very practical reasons to pursue business in Des Moines: commercial and residential space that was extremely affordable, a market need that he could fill, and a community that backed up their words of support with real spending power.

“When I was in New York, I was one of millions of people who said, ‘I’m going to do something cool and hip,’” recalls Draper. “The biggest difference here is that it’s not just talk. You can actually get things done in Des Moines.”

Today Draper’s RAYGUN is one of the most successful small businesses in Des Moines, located in a mixed-use building that sits in the shadow of the state capitol among ethnic grocery stores, bike shops, restaurants, high-end boutiques, and music venues and just across the river from the city’s central business district. With a DIY attitude and strong work ethic, Draper and his crew have tapped into the pride that Des Moines residents hold for their city and coupled it with a self-deprecating humor that only those who call this frozen space between two rivers in the middle of a corn desert “home” can truly appreciate.

Provincial wit aside, national media have taken note of Des Moines, dishing out accolades at an almost embarrassing rate: “Best City for Young Professionals,” “Best Place for Business and Careers,” “Best City for Families,” “Wealthiest City in America.” The recognition is welcome, but the significance is unclear. Are such rankings useful measures of success?

Balancing Act 

About half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas. By some estimates that number is expected to increase to 75 percent—more than 6 billion people—by the year 2030. This forecast makes identifying the qualities that help create strong cities not only an interesting academic study but also an important consideration for the future of the world.

Lance Noe, director of Drake’s Center for Professional Studies and lead facilitator for the Iowa Certified Public Manager Program—a joint venture between Drake University and the state—says successful cities in the United States recognize that responsibility for their own well-being is in their own hands.

Beyond Compare Forbes, Kiplinger, U.S.News & World Report, The Business Journals, NBC’s TODAY, and other national media have had a lot to say about Des Moines. Find the most recent rankings and links to the articles on the Greater Des Moines Partnership website.

For many decades following WWII, the federal government served as benefactor, providing dollars and direction for local and regional growth. The balance of power shifted in more recent years as metropolitan areas grew in size and population. The Great Recession, which began in December 2007, was the nail in the coffin for the old model, as Washington ceased to have the funds or functionality to grapple with municipal issues.

“The federal government has for past generations served as the idea and funding center for metropolitan areas, including Des Moines,” explains Noe. “Now individual cities and communities are having to take up the slack.”

This means not only creating new funding streams, he says, but also developing strategic plans for growth and collaborative management at the local level.

Authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy, 2013) express this shift as one in which the United States renews its fragile economy and begins to develop and manage its urban centers from the bottom up:

“Across the nation, cities and metros are taking control of their own destinies … Power is devolving to the places and people closest to the ground and oriented toward collaborative action … The metropolitan revolution has only one logical conclusion: the inversion of the hierarchy of power in the United States.”


The cities most likely to succeed in this changing environment, according to Katz and Bradley, are those that embrace a model of participation, cooperation, and collaboration from the all-important trio of government, corporate, and nonprofit sectors. 

“Des Moines has been largely successful at bringing these factions together,” says Noe of the critical balance. “Over the last 20 to 25 years, the city has been working hard and having a lot of success. The improvement to downtown is stark. It is a real renaissance for Des Moines.”

Stewards of Place

Shortly after Christine Hensley took office as a city council member representing Des Moines’ 3rd Ward in 1994, she had a conversation with a longtime community activist that continues to define her activity on the council 20 years later.

“He told me, ‘There is a real problem in the city: There are no cranes downtown. It is your job to get cranes down there.’”

Between 1979 and 1990, says Hensley, Des Moines experienced a flurry of development. The Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, Two Ruan Center, the Iowa Capitol Complex, the Polk County Convention Complex, The Principal Financial Group Tower, and the Embassy Suites Hotel all reshaped the downtown skyline.

Then the progress stalled.

“We looked around and said, ‘Good job,’ and patted ourselves on the back,” says Hensley. But there was no plan to build on downtown’s success.

In an effort to regain momentum, a coalition of public officials, business leaders, and social and cultural advocates began to think more holistically about the city’s core. The resulting Des Moines Vision Plan presented a creative framework for an interconnected downtown district and was ultimately responsible for many of the projects that help define today’s Des Moines: Gray’s Lake Park, Western Gateway Park, the East Village, Central Library, a new transit hub, and The Principal Riverwalk among them.

“I think the main reason we are successful as a city today is the public/private partnerships we have in Des Moines,” says Hensley. “And when I say private, I mean not only businesses but nonprofits, neighborhood groups, and individuals who’ve come together.”

Rick Clark, a 40-year city employee and Des Moines’ city manager from 2006 to February 2014 also credits Des Moines’ dynamic trio of government, business, and nonprofit groups with creating a climate of success for the city.

“We do have that tripod in Des Moines, and it is quite strong,” he says. “There’s been an ability for these groups to come together and craft a vision for Des Moines that all parties have been able to come to consensus on.”

Though initially a concept developed by Principal Financial Group to mark its 125th anniversary, The Riverwalk, according to Clark, came to serve as a prime example of cooperation among Des Moines’ various constituents. When first proposed in 2004, a two-year plan outlined a $15-million downtown public walking space along the Des Moines River. Ultimately the project stretched over eight years, cost more than $70 million, and expanded to include components proposed by residents and supported by nonprofit groups, businesses, and government.

Now The Principal Riverwalk connects 300 miles of central Iowa trails in a system that includes public art, fountains, pedestrian bridges (including the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge), a botanical garden, Brenton Skating Plaza, and The Hub Spot—a riverside gathering and concession area that provides gourmet food.

“There was a lot of input from the public and volunteers who participated and worked on different aspects of the project,“ says Hensley. “This project would not have developed into what it is today if Principal and city government were not open to the suggestions and ideas that came from other people.”

The Riverwalk, with all its accoutrements, is not only a valuable cultural asset but also an important investment for The Principal Financial Group and the city as a whole, explains Larry Zimpleman, chairman, president, and CEO of Principal and Chair of Drake’s board of trustees. A strong economy hinges on strong quality of life. Employers and workers have to want to build their lives here. By improving amenities in Des Moines, says Zimpleman, bn’73, gr’79, the company—and the city—is better able to retain and attract quality employees.

“We are fortunate to be a growing company, and as we grow, it is important for our continued success that Des Moines be a great place for families and children.”

Strengthening the Core

Identifying opportunities and leveraging assets has propelled The Riverwalk and other downtown projects, providing community space, encouraging shared experiences, even creating identity. The strength of the government-business-nonprofit trio has also been instrumental in recognizing and managing challenges.

The recent national recession brought economic struggle closer to more people. The pinch was felt here in Des Moines, too. Tony Timm, executive director of Central Iowa Shelter and Services (CISS), says the increase in homelessness made it difficult to meet service needs, especially in the shelter’s outdated and overcrowded home.

Des Moines went into action.

The Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, a philanthropic public organization, worked with the CISS board to bring several groups to the table to devise a solution. Business leaders and elected officials came together with advocates and, working through numerous challenges, crafted a bold strategy that satisfied all stakeholders.

“It was a real partnership when it came to how we did this,” says Timm. “From CISS and the Community Foundation on the nonprofit side of things, the business community on the planning and funding aspects of the project, and elected officials on the implementation of the project, it was really
a collaborative effort.”

The 42,000-square-foot building completed in 2012 holds more than 200 beds available in three dormitories and sits on the southern edge of downtown Des Moines’ Western Gateway—an area anchored by the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park and filling with artists’ lofts, restaurants, brewpubs, and other small businesses. In addition to shelter, the facility provides education programs and job training to transition people out of homelessness and into the job market—a common goal among social service providers, businesses, and government.

“We’re just a part of the community,” says Timm of the shelter’s location announced by a large courtyard sculpture in an area that’s become one of Des Moines’ destinations. “When you drive by and look at the building, it’s obvious we belong here.”

Distinctly Des Moines

With success in his Des Moines location, RAYGUN’s Draper set up a meeting to talk with business owners and others about expanding in Iowa City—the mecca of “cool” he remembered from his youth. The meeting was not what he expected.

“One of the first things people asked me was how they could make Iowa City more like the East Village.”

Draper says he realized then that Des Moines had truly reinvented itself. More important, he emphasizes, the capital city is now reaching a new level of self-confidence—no longer concerned that it is not L.A. or New York.

“It has its own vibe,” he says of Des Moines. “We don’t need to look at other cities and try to mimic what they’ve done to succeed. We have our own strengths and abilities.”

Talking Head As part of a headlining act at the 80/35 Music Festival in July 2013, David Byrne visited Des Moines and took time to explore and experience the city. In his online journal he asks, “Des Moines, a good place to live?

“The success we are seeing now is not an accident,” stresses Principal’s Zimpleman. “Well-run organizations think about the future and influence the future. The same is true of cities.”

Key to the success of Des Moines’ future, he says, is cultivation of the city’s young professionals. Emilee Richardson, JO’09, is current president of the Young Professionals Connection (YPC), an organization designed to nurture young professionals in Greater Des Moines through social, civic, charitable, and professional development endeavors. In what could be an indication of Des Moines’ brain drain slowing, membership in YPC has grown from a couple dozen to hundreds of dues-paying members today.

“The Greater Des Moines Partnership formed YPC in 2000 because they realized there was a gap between young people and the established leaders of the city,” says Richardson, marketing and communications coordinator at the Science Center of Iowa. “Young professionals are the future of Des Moines. They are the people who will be leading the companies and forming the startups and organizing the events.”

As president-elect of YPC, Richardson recently joined nearly 200 business executives, nonprofit leaders, and government officials on a trip to Washington, D.C., organized by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Richardson and the rest of the group served as central Iowa advocates in meetings, workshops, and seminars with Iowa’s congressional delegation, the Obama Administration, and their staffs.

“This was a great example of how government, business, and nonprofits can work together toward common goals,” she says, recounting discussions on education, housing, health and wellness, immigration, and arts and culture. “Des Moines is one of very few places in the country that does such a thing, and we’re certainly one of the largest.”

The opportunity to be involved at such a level in the city’s vision and development impresses Richardson.

“The thing I love about Des Moines, and one of the major keys to its success, is that the people here really care about our community,” adds Richardson. “We want Des Moines to be successful, and we want the people who live here to be successful, too.”


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