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The Journal Gazette

  • Des Moines Register Athletes and spectators gather in Des Moines’ Principal Riverwalk in October for the IMT Des Moines Marathon and other races. The Riverwalk offers a 1.2-mile looping trail on the Des Moines River.

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette Pappajohn Sculpture Park, downtown Des Moines

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette The Principal Riverwalk and the pedestrian bridge called the Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge.

  • Dhawan

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette A view of downtown Des Moines from the state capital

  • Des Moines Register View of the fishing-themed Rotary Riverwalk Park looking west toward Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday morning. The park, opening Friday, is located on the west side of the river and just north of the Center Street Pedestrian Bridge, part of the Principal Riverwalk.(please credit Des Moines Register since they are providing us the photos)

  • Smith

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette State capital, Des Moines

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette A view of downtown Des Moines from the pedestrian bridge on the Principal Riverwalk.

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette The Des Moines Social Club is a gathering place for visual and performing arts downtown.

  • Alexander

  • Andrea Markowski | Des Moines Register Sunset illuminates the Simon Estes Ampitheatre for Shakespeare Under the Stars, one of the many events and festivals that have been started in Des Moines., Iowa.

  • Zach Boyden-Holmes | Des Moines Register The Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens feature a Chinese imperial-style pavilion overlooking the Des Moines River.

  • Rossi

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette The stainless steel and fiberglass “White Ghost” is just a short distance from downtown in Des Moines’ Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

  • Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette The 4.4-acre Pappajohn Sculpture Park features the works of 22 artists on a pedestrian-friendly entranceway to downtown Des Moines.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 1:55 pm

How can we capture Des Moines' magic?

Ron Shawgo The Journal Gazette

DES MOINES, Iowa – Barely out of high school, not yet 18, Elise Alexander sits behind the reception desk at the Des Moines Social Club, a hip hangout for the arts downtown.

She’s the concierge, she says, and the after-school assistant arts coordinator. Besides art classes, the Social Club has frequent exhibits, concerts in the basement and plays about every month. Local artwork is for sale; a small comic book store offers a backdrop.

But in a few months, Alexander will leave it behind for an East Coast college where she’ll study theater and creative writing. "It’s in New York," she adds, "but I’m planning on coming back afterwards."

Coming back, or never leaving, are familiar refrains in this city of more than 200,000 people. It’s that spirit, cultivated by a concerted regional effort with Des Moines at its core, that Fort Wayne – nearly 500 miles due east – hopes to capture as it works toward building a vibrant downtown.

Two groups of Fort Wayne community leaders have visited Des Moines in recent months to see what they can borrow from a place showered with accolades as a prominent Midwestern city to watch.

The Social Club is just one of the landmarks proud Des Moines leaders point to as nourishing a young population.

And the outside accolades have been many: best city for young professionals, a best place for business and careers, best city for jobs, LGBT-friendly, under-the-radar tech hub, wealthiest city, best farmers market.

It’s not only Fort Wayne that’s interested. In the past two years, leaders from Wichita, Kansas, Columbia, South Carolina, and Rochester, Minnesota, have been to Des Moines. South Bend is considering it, according to the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the economic and community development organization serving central Iowa.

To be sure, Fort Wayne is like Des Moines in several ways: Midwestern cities on a river, low cost of living, an ease of getting around. And while early February with 10 inches of new snow is not the optimal time to visit, Des Moines, like Fort Wayne, does not shine of opulence but spouts a modest downtown with an occasional midskyscraper and signs of architectural resurgence.

There are busy restaurants downtown in both cities. An art scene, entertainment, minor league baseball and hockey teams, a science center, a botanical center and a symphony orchestra.

And Des Moines’ new Principal Riverwalk downtown is a shining example of what’s possible. The walk, a $70â ¯million joint project between the city and Principal Financial Group in honor of the company’s 125th anniversary, offers a 1.2-mile looping trail on the Des Moines River with a pedestrian bridge, skating park and promenade. It’s an example for Fort Wayne as it develops its own riverfront plans.

And there are major differences. 

Des Moines is the Iowa capital, with the employees and prominence a capital brings. About 31/2 times as many people go through its airport annually as go through Fort Wayne International.

When Fort Wayne declined to build a major highway through town decades ago, Des Moines linked Interstate 235 to Interstate 80 – one of the nation’s major east-west highways north of town – and brought it through the central city.

Rich in financial and insurance companies, metro Des Moines’ per capita income is $10,000 higher than Fort Wayne’s $37,537, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Fort Wayne’s economy is still guided largely by manufacturing.

When the Community Research Institute at IPFW ranked 100 midsize Midwestern metro areas in terms of per capita income, the change in total employment over time, gross regional product – or the total market value of goods and services – per capita, productivity and population change, Des Moines topped the list. Fort Wayne ranked 52. 

And Des Moines is slightly younger. The median age in Polk County, where Des Moines is located, is 34.8; in Allen County, it’s 35.5.

"The city of Des Moines is filled with anecdotes of people who either grew up here in Des Moines or have been schooled in Des Moines then leave to go have bigger experiences in Chicago, Minneapolis or D.C., L.A., New York," said John Smith, vice president of alumni and development at Drake University in Des Moines.

"And I think they are great moments that define them," he said. "But when it comes time to think about what it is they value, think about what things they appreciated from their experience, they start to think about families, schools, commutes; they gravitate back to Des Moines."

That’s reflected in young people The Journal Gazette talked to in a visit to Des Moines earlier this month.

As they rushed to class on a recent sunny, but frigid, afternoon, Drake students Morgan Emery and Sam Wolfson, both from Minnesota, said they and their friends would consider staying in Des Moines after graduation.

Emery said the city is "growing as a whole" and is attractive to young people. Wolfson mentioned the bar scene as popular among young adults. For those he knows, Des Moines is "definitely an option," Wolfson said.

As he sits in Mars Cafe, a casual restaurant near Drake, Amedeo Rossi talks about a change in the city in the 1980s and ’90s. Born, raised and college-educated in Des Moines, Rossi worked in human resources for 12 years before becoming a bar owner and activist on the music scene. 

"There was definitely a shift somewhere from where there was nothing to do to all of the sudden, there were more people taking chances about things they cared about: more festivals, more events, more pride in businesses they liked," he said. "There was a shift to more activists."

In the mid-2000s, Rossi, 45, became an organizer of the first 80/35 Music Festival. To keep young people, Rossi said he argued that the city needed a good music scene.

The city gave the organizers $50,000, and they got a $50,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines plus $50,000 in matching funds, he said. The rest of the money came from a private sponsor.

"They saw a calculated risk with being involved with our group," Rossi said. "Basically, when we got that, we could say we’re definitely doing this. This was an idea before. We’re definitely doing this." 

The festival – there have been seven – brings thousands of people downtown for two days in July to listen to artists on three stages.

Rossi isn’t alone in noting a seismic move.

Eugene Meyer, president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, points to a major change a decade ago when 17 surrounding communities dedicated two-sevenths of their hotel-motel tax to a newly formed organization to be redistributed to cultural and art groups and functions. That was the first time the region pooled tax dollars, he said. 

"And that was one of those ‘gee, we can do this’ " moments, Meyer said. It was the beginning of "everybody really demonstrating what they talk about, that culture and arts are very important to the quality of life of a community. It’s vitally important to the core, and the core being downtown Des Moines." 

Three years ago, the partnership expanded its reach to a 50-mile radius from the capital to involve a host of civic leaders to develop a five-year plan – Capital Crossroads – to address such issues as business, infrastructure, health, culture, leadership, diversity and civility. About 550 central Iowans serve on those committees.

While the plan recognizes the capital as integral in the region, "the private sector here is by far the biggest driver in terms of our economic successes," said Jay Byers, CEO of the partnership.

And many of those companies offer high-paying jobs.

Des Moines’ largest company, Wells Fargo, employs 18,000 in its financial and home mortgage sectors, according to the partnership.

Principle Financial is another large player. About 80 insurance companies call the area home, and there’s a large agriculture bioscience cluster that offers high-paying jobs in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – professions, Byers said.

Many young professionals live downtown, where there are about 9,000 housing units with 1,500 more under construction, according to the partnership. A goal of 10,000 was set 10 or 15 years ago. 

There are 50 projects in the works downtown, including housing, hotels, public and commercial space.

Tej Dhawan, an entrepreneur, came from India to study computer science at a private Iowa college. After graduating, he moonlighted for insurance companies, did some programming, built computers and developed software. He decided to stay and raise his family in Des Moines, where he helps others with tech company startups. 

Dhawan, who now volunteers on entrepreneur and immigration committees with the partnership, also believes that being a capital has little impact on Des Moines’ success.

"I think what makes a difference for us is that the city, county and corporate leadership is willing to sit down in the same room and work together and work equally to make the community better," he said. 

Fort Wayne officials also see economic success as a regional effort, said John Urbahns, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s executive vice president for economic development. He was among those who traveled to Des Moines last year.

"I think one of the take-aways I have, which I think we’re trying to do here, is have a common voice amongst business, which is important, and they are doing it and I think we are trying to do that as well," Urbahns said.

A major difference between the cities is that the decline in manufacturing did not affect Des Moines as it did Fort Wayne, he said. 

Urbahns also noted that Fort Wayne has received favorable national recognition. In December, the city was ranked 34th best out of the 100 most-populous cities for people 35 and under by The group looked at salary and employment rates, rent and utilities costs, public transportation, weather, crime and access to music and sports. 

Today, Fort Wayne’s focus is largely downtown. In recent years, a downtown baseball stadium complex was built against strong criticism. The city is considering riverfront development. A large office-residential complex downtown is under construction.

And downtown housing is opening up, with city leaders calling for more.

Whether that translates into more young people choosing the city to settle down, the future will decide. 

As for the Social Club’s Alexander, most of her friends are planning to return to Des Moines after college "because growing up in Des Moines, you’re so familiar with everything that’s happening," she said.

With the city’s emphasis on culture and art, she added, "We’re all really attracted to it, and we want to see where it’s going and be a part of it."