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Cover Story

Two Sides of the Coin


Des Moines has been at the top of multiple national listings in varying “best of” categories recently — everything from “best up-and-coming city for foodies” to “best city for young professionals.”

It’s nice to see Iowa’s capital city recognized for its progress — scores of people have put in a lot of time and money to revamp the metro. And many would likely agree that downtown Des Moines has indeed become a place to live, work and visit. But is it really the “best?” Fortune magazine said yes, naming it No. 1 on its list of “5 cities with up-and-coming downtowns” in July 2014, ahead of Kansas City, Missouri and its suburbs, which have a total population of 2.34 million compared to 599,789 in Greater Des Moines, according to 2013 numbers.

Darin Beck is the CEO of Barmuda Companies and knows well the achievements and struggles of the food and drink industry in Des Moines.

Darin Beck is the CEO of Barmuda Companies and knows well the achievements and struggles of the food and drink industry in Des Moines.

We talked to local business leaders, entertainment experts, political activists and shelter services about the reality of life in Des Moines. And while there is much to brag about, our fine city has a few things to work on, too.

Must be doing something right

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One of the metro’s biggest attributes and tourism draws is its entertainment scene. While it can’t compare with the likes of New York City or Los Angeles, Des Moines holds its own against other midwestern cities like Omaha and Minneapolis. Big name artists such as Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line have drawn sellout crowds to Wells Fargo Arena and the Iowa State Fair. Music festivals such as 80/35 and 515 Alive continue to be popular draws.

But music isn’t the only thing bringing tourists here. Catch Des Moines President and CEO Greg Edwards says the capital city offers convenience to its residents and visitors.

“We offer everything that any major city offers,” said Edwards. “We have great culture and art, we have a great education system, we have great parks and trails. I think all of those are probably the top reason people relocate (to Des Moines).”

In a world where people expect to be connected instantaneously, convenience is king. Having a shopping mall, Target or Wal-Mart within 20 minutes of most residences is one of those conveniences, not to mention the relatively low traffic levels compared to other metros. You thought I-235 at 5 p.m. was bad? Try driving through Chicago or Kansas City at any time of the day.

“Iowans are very humble people. We don’t like to brag about ourselves, but it’s time people start bragging more about Des Moines and the metro area when we’re traveling or talking to people outside the area.” — Greg Edwards, Catch Des Moines

“Iowans are very humble people. We don’t like to brag about ourselves, but it’s time people start bragging more about Des Moines and the metro area when we’re traveling or talking to people outside the area.” — Greg Edwards, Catch Des Moines

New shops and stores are opening across the metro, and few cities of Des Moines’ size have not one, not two, not three, but four shopping malls. And while Jordan Creek Town Center is the newest and biggest — built 10 years ago and with 2 million square feet of retail space in the two-story mall alone — the other centers are far from forgotten.

Merle Hay Mall recently opened Flix Brewhouse, an eight-screen movie theater, microbrewery and full-service restaurant, the first of its kind in the area, and part of Merle Hay’s plan to stay relevant.

In a similar surge of growth, Des Moines’ downtown area has become a prime target for developers new and old. The area is home to many new locally owned restaurants and is the destination of hundreds of soon-to-be-built apartments in various complexes. It is also a sought-after spot for big businesses, such as the Kum & Go corporate headquarters, a $92-million project expected to break ground later this year.

Downtown Des Moines has seen incredible changes and improvements in the last decade, and it’s being noticed on a national level.

But no one knows what a city needs better than its residents, and they say Des Moines is not done improving quite yet.

No such thing as good enough

After working at Des Moines’ Visitors Bureau for 15 years, Edwards has a good idea of what the city has to offer — and what it doesn’t. As far as tourism, he says there are a few areas to be improved upon.

“I believe we need a convention center hotel attached to the Iowa Events Center,” he said. “I think we need more retail downtown, which I think is slowly coming. I think we need more activity, retail (and) restaurants along our beautiful Principal Riverwalk area downtown.”

Tony Timm is the executive director of Central Iowa Shelter and Services. He says the first step in helping solve Des Moines’ homelessness issue is making it a discussion.

Tony Timm is the executive director of Central Iowa Shelter and Services. He says the first step in helping solve Des Moines’ homelessness issue is making it a discussion.

A 2013 Executive Call Survey showed that downtown Des Moines scored 43 on a scale of 0-50 for population/business density, but only a 9 for entertainment and dining options, suggesting significant portions of the area remain underserved. Its “patchy development/commercial occupancy” and lack of street-level retail were listed as community weaknesses.

Des Moines is still trying to prove its merit against cities such as Omaha, Nebraska and Minneapolis, Minnesota, both of which have two convention center hotels.

The Iowa Events Center attracts some of Iowa’s largest indoor events, and the addition of a convention hotel would likely draw in more regional and national events — such as the opening weekend of the 2016 NCAA men’s basketball tournament Des Moines was awarded.

Edwards said the Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) bus system has helped transportation in the region, but additional rapid transit systems and routes would be beneficial to the city.

In terms of transport, in the fall of 2014, Des Moines joined the list of cities that now offer the application-based taxi service Uber. The service was welcomed by much of the public, but its relationship with city officials and local taxi companies has been tense, to put it mildly.

But Edwards is optimistic about other developments, many of which he says will likely begin this year.

“I believe in the next couple of years we’re going to see a lot more major retail downtown, including movement on the Hy-Vee grocery store downtown and other things like that,” he said.

In the last decade, Des Moines and its neighboring suburbs have undergone changes to the extent of nearly feeling like entirely different places. Local business operators like Darin Beck will say that’s not a bad thing.

“What attracts people is change,” said Beck, CEO of Barmuda Companies, which manages Joker’s, the Stuffed Olive and Voodoo Lounge in Des Moines, along with various other restaurants and nightclubs in Iowa.

Beck says he believes new bars and restaurants are catering to a younger audience with very different tastes from the generations that came before them.

“I think they’re looking for something that expresses their individualism, and you see a lot of that cropping up in these new restaurants that have kind of a different vibe than what was going on in the past,” he explained. “There’s a lot of attention to the quality of food, the creativeness and the uniqueness of the food. But it’s also happening with cocktails, wine — you know, spirits in general.”

But in a time when the economy is still in recovery and people seem less willing to spend money on going out, restaurants are forced to find new ways to draw people in. Beck pointed out that weeknights are the hardest time to get customers through the door and spending money.

“I think it would be good if maybe a group like the Court (District) Association or somebody would maybe put some — not so much a theme night, but like a theme night where everybody knows that Wednesday night, for instance, is a great night to go to Court Avenue because everybody’s participating in (the same special), whether it’s a discount that night or some kind of incentive for them to go to the district,” said Beck.

He pointed to Cedar Falls as an example of a city with a very successful downtown area because of its community-wide promotions and specials.

That type of block special has proven its worth in smaller communities and college towns such as Cedar Falls and the main bar district on Welch Avenue in Ames. So why hasn’t Des Moines taken the hint and created something similar?

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of volunteer time to get associations to be effective when it comes to marketing,” Beck explained. “I think everybody’s still kind of on their own, doing their own thing right now.”

The view from the inside

The fact that people are spending less of their disposable income on going out is no surprise considering the state of today’s economy.

But despite not offering the highest-paying jobs, Des Moines was named the second-best city to find a job in 2015 by WalletHub. That has to say something about the local economy, right?

Well, not exactly.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the per capita income in Des Moines in 2013 was $23,928, and the median household income in the same period was $45,836. From 2009 to 2013, 18.5 percent of the people in Des Moines were below the poverty level, while the national rate in 2013 was 14.5 percent.

Tony Timm, executive director of Central Iowa Shelter and Services, said there is no shortage of people looking for a place to stay on any given night.

“I think the last numbers in the metro area were a little over 5,000 people in the course of a year,” said Timm of the homeless population served at the shelters. “And it seems to be at this time that we have more people than beds, so we’re operating a large overflow program in addition to our regular program.”

Timm said he isn’t sure how the homeless population compares to cities of similar size to Des Moines, but he acknowledges the difficulties of Des Moines’ harsh winter climate, which makes it difficult for people to survive outside year-round.

“There are a lot of people in poverty — that’s what people don’t understand. The poverty in Iowa has grown bigger. The data doesn’t lie. The question then remains: Are we going to ignore the data or do something about it?” — Jonathan Narcisse

“There are a lot of people in poverty — that’s what people don’t understand. The poverty in Iowa has grown bigger. The data doesn’t lie. The question then remains: Are we going to ignore the data or do something about it?” — Jonathan Narcisse

Some people don’t see homelessness as an issue in Des Moines, however. Sure, there’s the occasional person walking down the street in old clothes and a torn, weathered bag, but that’s about it. Right?

“I’d say that (Des Moines’) biggest challenge is denial,” said Jonathan Narcisse, a former Des Moines School District board member who also ran for governor against Terry Branstad in 2014. “Because we’re unwilling to see the challenges that are before us and, instead, are more interested in a projected image that we’re not able to tackle these problems.”

That might be a hard pill to swallow, but Narcisse recognizes that every city has its problems — even the one he calls home.

“Do I like Des Moines? Yes, this is my home,” he said. “This is where I choose to live, this is where my children live. But I don’t get that confused with the challenges we face. I mean, you can abandon home, or you can fight to make it a better place. Those are the two options.”

Narcisse and Timm agree the first step in solving those challenges of poverty and homelessness is making it a public discussion.

“There’s definitely buy-in from elected officials and community leaders to help address the problem,” Timm said, speaking of the lack of affordable housing in the area. “But we’re going to need to have community-wide support for a new developer or organizations to build a property where we can house individuals.”

Timm thinks more people are aware of the homeless issue in Des Moines now than five or six years ago, but there is still a long way to go in educating the general public.

Some of the concerns he says need addressed include mental illness, substance abuse and violence.

In 2012, the Des Moines Police Department reported 106 alcohol violations, 1,599 drug-related arrests, 18 meth lab dumpsites and 1,169 drug locker follow-up cases. There were reports of 587 aggravated assaults, 2,371 robberies and 10 murders in the same year.

“It’s not as simple as people making a wrong choice,” Timm said. “There are a lot of contributing factors, and the fact that we haven’t had the resources to truly address mental health concerns is part of that issue.”

Narcisse had a similar opinion on the lack of mental health services and its connection to Des Moines’ poverty problem, deeming it a lack of governance and an unwillingness to see that these issues do, in fact, exist.

“We have a great potential here,” Narcisse said. “But we suffer from the leadership that has grown stagnant and has lost touch and that just is not connected with the reality of our community.”

Des Moines’ education decline

For decades, Iowa’s education program was among the top in the nation. In the years since, however, there has been a continued downward slide, enough that Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2011 who published “Iowa’s Wake-Up Call,” wrote that the state has stagnated educationally in the last two decades.

According to information from the Des Moines Public Schools, in the 2012-2013 school year, 32,746 students were enrolled in the Des Moines Public School District. Of that number, approximately 70 percent were enrolled in free and reduced lunch, and 551 students dropped out of school during the year.

From 2009 to 2013, the rate of high school graduation in Des Moines was 87.1 percent compared to more than 90 percent for the rest of the state. Only 24.7 percent of Des Moines residents age 25 and older had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Not there yet

Progress has been made, there’s no arguing that. Des Moines — and the entire state for that matter — has a right to bask in the national spotlight for something other than agriculture or its once-great education system. Admittedly, some of these accolades are a stretch. To think otherwise would be foolish. The true reality, however, is that, while a big step in the right direction has been taken, there’s still plenty of work to be done. CV

Des Moines has received a lot of outside praise in the last year.

No. 2 on WalletHub’s “2015’s Best & Worst Cities to Find a Job

No. 1 on Women’s Health magazine and Yelp’s “Social Climbers: 5 Best Up-and Coming Cities for Foodies

No. 1 on Forbes’ “America’s 15 Best Cities for Young Professionals

No. 1 on Fortune’s “5 Cities with Up-and-Coming Downtowns

No. 1 on Nerd Wallet’s “The Best Medium-Sized Metro Areas for Homeonership

No. 2 on The Daily Meal’s “101 Best Farmers Markets in America for 2014

No. 2 on The SpareFoot Blog’s “America’s Top 5 Under-the-Radar Tech Hubs

No. 4 on Huffington Post’s “America’s Most LGBT-Friendly Cities Ranked by Vocativ’s ‘Queer Index’

No. 6 on Forbes’ “America’s Best Cities for Raising a Family

No. 10 on Paste Magazine’s “10 Undercover Stylish Neighborhoods in the US” (East Village)

No. 37 (Waukee), No. 36 (Ankeny) and No. 25 (Johnston) on Business Insider’s “The 50 Best Suburbs in America

To read more on Iowa’s rankings, visit https://www.desmoinesmetro.com/en/dsm_metro_info/rankings/

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