Des Moines has experienced a dramatic urban renaissance, with nearly $2.8 billion spent on a broad range of downtown projects since the turn of the millennium. Downtown Des Moines is home to exceptional cultural institutions and superb recreational and entertainment venues. Historic office buildings have been transformed into stylish restaurants and nightclubs, with a growing collage of progressive, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods nearby.
Source: National Trust Main Street Center announcement that the organization, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, picked Des Moines to host the 2011 National Main Streets Conference next May.
As the 2009 recession continues to depress household incomes, stymie job growth and spike government debt, Forbes.com offered a suggestion: Move to Middle America. Specifically, to Des Moines.
In April, Forbes declared Iowa’s capital the number-one “best place for business and careers” based upon its “reasonable business costs, strong economic outlook and solid quality of life.” The city was seventh on the list last year.
Forbes is not the only one praising Des Moines these days. In May, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine pegged the city number seven on its “best cities for the next decade” list for attracting “global talent”; its other draws are low-cost housing and the city’s “long-touted reputation for family-friendliness and a ’19-minute commute.’”
Des Moines also has attracted the attention of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, which in February featured an article about “recent commercial, residential and retail development in Des Moines, where public and private cooperation has produced a robust urban landscape matched by few cities its size.”
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So what’s up with all this applause for a city in the heart of fly-over land?
“I’ve seen transformations in the city,” says DMU Trustee Dale Andres, D.O.’73, senior vice president of medical affairs at Mercy Medical Center-Des Moines. “It’s multidimensional, from sports to recreation to schools to shopping.”
Developments in the metro area in the past five years include:
- Installation of the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, named after the couple who donated to the city 25 works by international artists, valued at more than $40 million. Midwest Living magazine recently included the park among its top 45 “best new Midwest spots to play, eat and stay.”
- A new central branch of the Des Moines Public Library spanning two blocks in the heart of Des Moines’ Western Gateway Park. Designed by London-based architect David Chipperfield, the library features Okatech windows that create an external copper façade but, from inside the building, are transparent.
- The new Science Center of Iowa, which includes a 216-seat IMAX Dome Theater and a 50- foot domed Star Theater.
- Renewal of Gray’s Lake Park, with creation of the two-mile Kruidenier Trail that encircles it and connects to other trails in the area.
- Construction of Wells Fargo Arena, Hy-Vee Hall and the Iowa Hall of Pride adjacent to Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which is scheduled to be remodeled as a convention center. Home of the Iowa Barnstormers arena football team, Wells Fargo Arena has hosted performers including Elton John, the Black Eyed Peas, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.
- Historic East Village east of the Des Moines River stretching six blocks to East 14th Street, previously a dilapidated area now home to hip eateries, eclectic boutiques and swanky loft-style housing.
- In West Des Moines, Jordan Creek Town Center, the state’s largest shopping complex with upscale retailers, restaurants and a 3.5-acre lake with walking trails.
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These and other new developments join the area’s tried-and-true favorites, such as the famed goldleaf-domed State Capitol Building, historic Valley Junction (West Des Moines), Living History Farms, Blank Park Zoo and the renowed Des Moines Art Center.
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Annual events also add to
Des Moines’ cool factor, including the following:
- the annual Iowa State Fair, which draws nearly one million visitors and was included in the New York Times best-selling travel book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and subsequent travel book 1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die.
- the Des Moines Arts Festival, which annually draws more than 200,000 people; it was named the nation’s fifth top art fair by AmericanStyle Magazine in 2008.
- the Hy-Vee World Cup Triathlon, which attracts thousands of elite and amateur athletes with its rich purses; the event also has raised more than $750,000 for Variety–the Children’s Charity
- the Principal Charity Classic, the only Champions Tour event in Iowa; named “best event” in 2009 by the Tour, the golf tournament has raised $1.7 million for local children’s charities.
- the 80/35 Music Festival, launched in 2008 in downtown’s Western Gateway Park and named after the area’s crossing interstates; performers have included the Flaming Lips, Public Enemy, Ben Harper and Modest Mouse.
- new and classic Broadway shows, Des Moines Symphony concerts, comedy performances and more at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, which ranked 17th in ticket sales in the Jan. 11, 2010, edition of Pollstar magazine’s annual list of the top 100 worldwide theater venues.
- the annual prestigious World Food Prize, created by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug in 1986 to recognize international leaders in improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world.
- the Downtown Farmers Market, which lures thousands of people every Saturday from May 1 through Oct. 30 with its more than 200 vendors; the Farm Boys’ breakfast burrito alone makes the trip well worth it.
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Variety marks Des Moines’ dining scene, too. With more than 850 restaurants in the metropolitan area, diners can choose from upscale French cuisine to fusion, Cajun, sushi, vegetarian, Vietnamese, Italian and all ethnic versions in between.
“Everything went from meat and potatoes and spaghetti to chef-driven restaurants, where the chef has a vision of what he or she wants to create,” says W.E. Moranville, restaurant reviewer for The Des Moines Register since 1997. “The whole mantra today is fresh and local and making a restaurant truly one of a kind. It’s such a nice change.”
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Progress in Des Moines has not occurred overnight. Art Wittmack, retired president, CEO and chairman of Neumann Brothers, a Des Moines-based construction company, says the evolution has been driven by an ongoing strategic planning process; productive partnerships among public and private sectors; and, relative to many other cities, fewer economic ups and downs thanks to agricultural, banking, insurance and health care industries in the area.
Wittmack should know: His company, founded in 1912, has literally changed the face of Des Moines with dozens of construction and renovation projects, including the Ruan Center (once Iowa’s tallest building), Science Center of Iowa, the award-winning Employers Mutual Casualty Co. building, the Meredith Co. building and several DMU projects.
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Wittmack, a member of the DMU Board of Trustees and the Greater Des Moines Partnership Board, says the city’s secret sauce is its user-friendly environment.
“I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and live on both coasts and in Chicago, but what brought me back was that Des Moines is a great place to live, work and bring up children,” he says. “It has that balance that other cities were missing. Bike trails, Broadway plays, the Des Moines Symphony, the Art Center, music, athletics – you can do all those things in Des Moines.”
Want sports? Des Moines offers plenty, all at family-friendly prices:
- Des Moines Buccaneers USHL hockey team
- Des Moines Menace PDL soccer team
- Iowa Barnstormers arena football team
- Iowa Crush women’s professional football club
- Iowa Cubs Triple-A baseball team
- Iowa Energy NBA D-League basketball team
For more information about Des Moines visit the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Des Moines: a good reason to attend your reunion
If you haven’t visited your alma mater lately, you’re in for not one but two big surprises – DMU and Des Moines. Both have changed significantly in the past five years. The DMU Unified Reunion Aug. 13-15 offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy both. Events include campus tours, a five-kilometer run/walk in the neighborhood and DMU Day at the world-famous Iowa State Fair. Participants will have time to explore campus and the city on their own, too.
See for yourself!
Don’t miss the fun: View reunion events and register online by visiting www.dmu.edu/alumni/reunion.