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Des Moines: a 'new age community.' (Des Moines, Iowa)

Defined as "the new style American city," Des Moines, Iowa is a prime example of successful private/public partnerships and innovative programs that make urban and suburban competition healthy. Together local governments and the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation are embarking upon a long-term series of downtown development, neighborhood revitalization, and education initiatives.

"We have expanded the definition of cities," said Des Moines City Manager Cy Carney, during a recent visit to the National league of Cities in Washington, D.C. "We are creating a balance--a healthy downtown, healthy neighborhoods and healthy suburbs."


Recognized as a "boom town" by national publications like U.S. News and World Report and called one of the country's "super cities . . . here people are moving and opportunity is knocking" by Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, Des Moines new style American city image is based heavily on its strong economics.

Des Moines unemployment rate averages about half the national rate, personal income is well above the national average, its retail and housing markets experience steady growth with a vacancy rate of about 9.6 percent--compared to a national city average of about 17 percent--productivity among its work force is 36 percent above the national average, it is home to more than 60 home-based insurance companies to place third in the world, Des Moines is also home for companies like Sears, Roebuck & Co., Amoco Oil Customer Service Center, Greyhound Lines, Inc. and the Keebler Co.

In West Des Moines, the city's suburban area, former cornfields are meeting the popular need for office and industrial parks, and helping the suburban market keep pace with downtown development. Total property values grew from $554 million in 1982 to $1.2 billion in 1989. Des Moines was rated among the 21 top real estate investments markets in 1991 by real estate conglomerate Century 21 because of low mortgage rates and affordable prices.

In 1990 Site Selection magazine named the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation's Business and Economic Development Department one of the country's top 10 economic development groups. The entire city limits of Des Moines was declared a tax abatement in 1987 and was extended through 1996. The tax abatement program forgives taxes on new houses, qualifying remodeling projects and developments for five years.


The Neighborhood Finance Corporation (NFC), is a public/private partnership coordinated by the Chamber Federation and consists of neighborhood groups, local businesses, city government and the Polk County government. NFC is facilitating a $19 million investment in neighborhoods over a three-year period for the construction of 676 housing units spread through 14 neighborhoods. The $19 million evolved from $15 million is private donations and $4 million from the city and county governments.

"The (Des Moines) Chamber of Commerce has a traditional responsibility of governmental affairs. We also have a community responsibility of equal value," said Commerce Board of Directors Vice President Tom Gibson.

NFC is a nonprofit organization set up to disburse and facilitate funds to assist developers and individual homeowners and home buyers. NFC hopes to increase the availability of safe, decent and affordable housing; enhance the city's tax base; attract new residents; reduce the pressure experienced by the social service systems created by a lack of affordable housing and deteriorating neighborhoods; and add an influx of new construction projects.

As a result, NFC launched a list of programs to help meet these goals including home purchase and rehab programs, a neighborhood revitalization fund, and home improvement and multi-family loans. Since April 1991, NFC has issues $2.2. million in loans and grants to assist 170 families to fund 110 new home and home rehabilitation projects. The school district donated the property and private industry pitched in financially to renovate a neighborhood park and expand it into a full service recreation facility with a full time outreach worker.

NFC's operating budget is funded by nearly half a million is corporate pledges. NFC offers free public seminars on securing credit, budgeting and home improvement and repair tips. NFC was created after a study of Des Moines by the consulting firm of Stockard and Engler of Massachusetts. The Des Moines city council contracted with the consulting firm to begin reviewing NFC's effectiveness in June 1992.


The Des Moines skywalk is a 2.6 mile walkway designed to carry some 40,000 downtown office workers through the city without disturbing the city's varied climate. The skywalk is made up of 40 public and 4 private bridges and spans 30 city blocks, making it the longest skywalk based on the number of blocks per capita.

The skywalk connects pedestrians to the Convention Center, Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 3 hotels, 22 office buildings, 150 shops, restaurants and department stores and 8 multi-level parking garages. The skywalk connects America's largest open golf tournament and has a Chaplaincy Center, a non-denominational spiritual life and employee reference center offering counseling for alcohol and substance abuse, divorce, marriage and family crisis intervention, job loss, job stress and serious illness.

In April, 1992 Des Moines opened the Sec Taylor Stadium, a 11.5 million project and home to the Iowa Cubs minor-league baseball team. Funding was provided by a grant from the Des Moines Development Corporation, a downtown business organization, and a voter-approved $6.6 million bond issue. The mayors of six suburban communities--Altoona, Ankeny, Johnston, West Des Moines, Windsor Heights and Urbandale--pledged to use the money from hotel and lodging taxes to raise a $1.5 million shortfall.

In 1988, Des Moines organized a 90-member board representing business, city government, labor, arts, education, cultural and recreational facilities and neighborhoods, including the Skidmore Owings Merrill Foundation and Institute for Architecture and Urbanism and Yale University School of Architecture to create the "Des Moines Vision Plan." The plan is a blueprint to create a 21 century urban model for cities.

The plan includes building a 1,500 unit downtown housing development, the Central Business District Parkway, riverfront development and development to the Des Moines International Airport.

Considered a financial compliment to the housing project is the plan for construction of a 350,000-400,000 square foot corporate plaza by the Principal Financial Group, a group of insurance and financial service companies. The corporate campus requires cooperation from the city to reroute and redesign traffic patterns. The plan was submitted to the city council in March 1992 and is still pending approval. Construction is expected to begin in August 1993.


Other examples of a solid working relationship between city government, neighborhoods and the business community can be found in Des Moines schools.

"Connections" assures a minimum of 3 percent of Des Moines high school graduates a chance to network with community and business leaders throughout their college experience. Being a part of the programs, students receive constant information and contacts for job opportunities in Des Moines. Each student is assigned a mentor to further encourage students to return to Des Moines to work after college graduation.

"Partners for Progress" is a 20 year-old organization which combines the business organizations of Friends and the Business/Education Alliance and provides each of Des Moines' 63 public schools with a partner from the business community. The program helps shape and improve the future work force. The Business/Education Alliance passed regulations for its 30 members companies that restrict the number of hours youth can work per week to 20 hours and encourage business to take an interest in whether the youth they employ maintain good grades in school.

Beyond consistently interacting the business community, Des Moines public schools have several programs in place that promote healthy families. In 1990, Des Moines was featured in Life magazines' issue on American children. Des Moines is one of a few cities in the country with a Choice program, where students can choose schools outside of their District at the cities expense.

In contrast to the national average of one guidance counselor for every 850 students, Des Moines provides, through a program called "Smoother Sailing," a guidance counselor for every 250 students. In addition, many schools in Des Moines are one-stop social service centers, where families can receive case management and counseling. The private sector helps fund ongoing seminars in the public schools where students can drop in for scheduled services on alcohol and substance abuse, health education, employment, and individual and family crisis intervention.

"We approach our school problems by taking a look at our community problems," said School Superintendent Gary Wegenke. "We formed a community focus group and identified four areas we need to address: housing, transportation, quality of life and the drop out rate effect on the 21 century economy."

The result "we are learning a lot about what we have to do about stabilizing our community." A stronger community tie to school programs was instrumental in the organization of the "Success Program," which pools 13 United Way agencies, the city and county government and the private sector to provide on-site social service case managers for students.

"By putting case managers in the school and making them available for the entire family, we no longer need two or three case workers (working often independently) per family. This effort cuts costs," said Wegenke.

This "family friendly community" operates a child care reference center to link families with more than 1,000 child care and pre- school programs and family/group centers in the area. Des Moines adult education programs maintain and annual enrollment of 100,000.

Des Moines is home to about eight colleges and universities. The Des Moines Area Community College works with 14 other state- supported community colleges to offer a job training program that provides new and expanding business with assistance with skills assessment, orientation, pre-employment training, and one the job training. The programs allots 50 percent of the training dollars to offset salary and benefits for new employees.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Baker, Denise
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Aug 3, 1992
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