Iowa’s largest places where people congregate and what they mean about us.
Iowa breached the national consciousness with its exceptional inclination for coming together. No other state saw such a high percentage of its men volunteer to fight in the Civil War — 76,000 out of a total population of 675,000 in 1860. Walk through large sections of the Vicksburg National Cemetery, and you might gasp seeing how many tombstones are for Iowans, particularly young ones.
Iowa’s famous caucuses are also exemplary of a rare coming togetherness. Attendees act like legislators more than voters. They meet face to face, argue and compromise until they can put their collective aegis on a candidate. In an era when the voting process, and intercommunication in general, has become seriously disengaged, that uniquely Iowa process is endearing.
Yet it’s also endangered. As more and more people scroll down their smart phones at the bar and dinner table, America is now thinking about making the voting process more virtual with reduced personal participation. With increased pressure to encourage more absentee voters and unidentifiable voters, national parties are trying to bump the numbers of participants in the Iowa caucuses by allowing people to participate without showing up.
In the current zeitgeist of national disengagement, and as the season of fairs, parades and outdoor concerts approaches, CITYVIEW decided it was time to celebrate those places in Iowa that lead the state in putting fannies in seats. Where do Iowans prefer to go to celebrate things together?
Let’s begin with where our kids go to learn stuff. The 10 largest schools in Iowa are, in order, Des Moines East, Des Moines Lincoln, West Des Moines Valley, Southeast Polk, Iowa City West, Davenport West, Linn Mar, Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Des Moines Roosevelt and Dubuque Hempstead. This last year 2,292 students enrolled at East with 121 teachers (second to Davenport West). Dowling Catholic, with 1,406 students and 80 teachers, was the biggest private school in the state.
Math suggests that 17.6 students per teachers work for the biggest private school while 18.9 students per teacher is the rate at the largest public school. That’s hardly the discrepancy that most cynics claim holds public school students back, or elitists think justifies huge tuitions at private schools. The overall student-to-teacher ratio in Iowa is 14-1, and that includes a lot of schools with fewer than 14 students.
Wyoming has the lowest rate at 7-1. Utah and California have the highest rates at more than 21-1. Iowa ranks 38th nationally in number of students per high school with 305. (Georgia is the leader there with 544. Montana has the smallest average high school size with 171 students per school.) Iowa’s rank is eight places below its population rank. That makes it reasonable to conclude that the state’s citizens value the personable quality of smaller schools over the additional educational options that come with bigger schools. The latter is the argument that led to the eradication of more than half of the schools in the state through consolidation and bussing. Apparently, Iowans remain more resistant than others.
If coming together in large numbers does not begin with school for some Iowans, it’s probably because they can start going to church younger. Iowa’s Journalist Laureate, Hugh Sidey, wrote that “I learned the language of Iowa in church basements where threshers ate mountains of potatoes and tons of pot roast.” Sidey also wrote that John Kennedy said that Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev only respected Iowans amongst all Americans.
Church sizes are too flexible to trust reliable numbers, but only two Iowa churches rank in the “mega church” category according to the website of www.usachurches.org. They are Lutheran Church of Hope on Jordan Creek Parkway in West Des Moines and First Assembly of God in Cedar Rapids. Hartford Institute of Church Research lists the Lutheran Church of Hope’s average attendance at 10,578. That is five times greater than they list for any other Iowa church including First Assembly of God.
TV star Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, is the national leader with 43,500 weekly attendees. The largest church in the Midwest is Willow Creek Community in the Chicago suburbs with 25,754. Seventeen of the top 20 largest U.S. churches are in the south. The others are in California and Minneapolis. The California megachurch has the word “Rock” in its title.
The West Des Moines church offers several summer Bible study classes for children, a summer camp for preschoolers and a “soaked in God’s love” activity for older children. Its summer calendar listed about eight different daily events, from free dinners and breakfasts to yoga and “financial peace.” It was offering seven different worships on Sundays and at least one on Saturdays. Photos suggested that Christian rock was an enthusiastic part of services, too. We aren’t the south, nor California, but we are competitive when it comes to contemporary mega religion.
Buried in the end zone
The same thing could be said about the state’s largest venue for gathering together. Nile Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City regularly sees 70,000 fans attend home football games. On such occasions, it holds more people than all but four Iowa cities. The stadium carries an intriguing fact sheet and an interesting rumor. It was originally built in just nine months with crews working 24/7 from 1929-30. Mules and horses did the heavy lifting, and the rumor claims the beasts of burden who died in service to football are buried under the north end zone.
The stadium ranks 25th nationally amongst college football parks. Fourteen of the others are southern schools. Kinnick also set the national record for a wrestling meet when more than 42,000 fans showed up for a rare outdoor dual in 2015.
The state also draws the biggest crowds in the nation to its high school tournament, with 80,000 typically showing up at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Iowa’s largest indoor entertainment facility is a 16,980-seat multi-purpose arena and part of the Iowa Events Center. Besides the state wrestling tournament, it also annually hosts state high school tournaments in boys’ and girls’ basketball. This period, much of which is in February, is known locally as “March Madness.”
The building also persuaded national college events of renown to come back to Iowa after decades away. The NCAA wrestling national finals came to Wells Fargo for the first time in central Iowa since 1993, but then proclaimed it too small to host again. Previously, Ames and Iowa City were regular hosts. The NCAA women’s basketball regional finals, and its first and second rounds, also came back, and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament will return next year for its second showing in central Iowa since shunning Hilton after the 1992 regional finals.
Wells Fargo also is a regular host of minor league basketball, hockey and arena football teams. Its concert record has practically eradicated Ames’ stadia as concert hosts. Among the big shows at the county-owned arena were Taylor Swift, Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, Garth Brooks, The Eagles, Justin Bieber, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney, Kati Perry, Ed Sheeran, Bon Jovi, Britney Spears, Bob Seger and The Who. The arena has made Des Moines competitive with Omaha for big events that used to choose our western rival.
The reason that Polk County can own Wells Fargo Arena is that it also owns profitable Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, likely the largest government-owned casino in America. Because the county was unable to persuade Altoona to waive its ban against construction higher than four stories, the track, casino and hotel now occupy more than a million square feet of hospitality on just four floors — which creates the largest footprint of any structure in the state.
During the Christmas season, the track hosted as many as 17 parties simultaneously. They accommodated more than 1,000 guests for weddings. The Events Center includes two ballrooms that can seat a total of 1,500. The larger ballroom has a 2,700-square-foot stage, two green rooms, and a garage door backstage so limousines can sneak in and out. The kitchen, modeled after the one at Disney’s Epcot Center, feeds three restaurants, including the busiest one in the state — Triple Crown Buffet where 450 seats turn over in track record times.
Chef Patti Weidner heads a staff of 63 full-time employees and scores of others. She says they speak at least nine different languages. On Mother’s Day, they served 3,500 meals in the Triple Crown alone. The busiest days of the year at the track are for Triple Crown races and the camel and ostrich races. The busiest days in the casino also coincide with holiday weekends.
The all-time largest host of concerts in Iowa is the place now known as Jack Trice Stadium. The stadium seems to be out of the concert business, though, having hosted its last event in 1999 with George Strait, Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks. In the days when its athletic department was willing to share the facility with the non-football fan, they packed it with the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Genesis, U2, Farm Aid VI, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel/Elton John.
Renovations to Jack Trice have cost as much as $100 million by some estimates. While the athletic department insists all costs are covered by ticket/suite price increases for football and basketball, and fundraising, some people think that they are making indirect contributions that should encourage the facility to be used again for more than just six days a year of football. The official line at ISU is they don’t go looking for events but would be open if a promoter contacted them. Kinnick Stadium, ironically, hosted its first-ever concert last year.
The blue oval
While Kinnick and Trice have spent multi-millions increasing capacity, the state’s overwhelming favorite venue for track meets has run the other way. Drake Stadium‘s 400-meter, blue oval track is the most recognizable part of Des Moines to people flying over the city. With some 14,000 seats (reduced from some 18,000 seats since modernization 12 years ago), the stadium hosts at least three big track meets a year. The Drake Relays and the combined boys and girls Iowa State High School track meets are packed to capacity annually.
The facility is also in a regular rotation with four others to host the National Junior Olympics, the biggest tourist event ever in Des Moines to be ignored by Des Moines’ daily paper. That meet packs the stadium for an entire week almost entirely with out-of-towners. The NCAA track finals also have made repeated visits to the stadium. Drake Stadium was built in 1925 by a group of Des Moines businessmen hoping to bring big-time college football to Des Moines. Sometimes, less is more.
That applies to the most relatively successful venue in Iowa as well. The Des Moines Civic Center is consistently rated in the top five venues worldwide in percentage of seats sold, and total seats sold for any place with less than 3,000 chairs. Since 1979, it has singlehandedly put Des Moines on the itinerary for Broadway’s top road shows. (“Hamilton” is the hottest play in a decade or more and will visit Des Moines just a year after it premiered in Chicago.)
It’s also a gift of genius from beyond the last frontier. Against popular opinion, the late architect Chick Hearn insisted the venue be built to reflect what he thought was the egalitarian mindset of Iowans. The late mayor Dick Olson liked the idea so much he used his considerable powers of persuasion to ramrod funding after it failed a bond issue. As a result, there are no trappings of elitism such as boxes, balconies, valets, VIP rooms, etc. (The stuff that supposedly pays for Jack Trice and makes it too precious for concerts.) There are not even any aisles. This is the polar opposite of Jack Trice and Wells Fargo Arena.
Yet all these places attract Iowans in big numbers. There is an urban development theory that says broken downtowns and neighborhoods are usually recreated through a process that begins with cheap rents attracting artists and then edgy restaurants. That eventually upgrades real estate until only upscale restaurants can afford to stay while hotels, condos and apartments move in.
The places that most attract the fannies of Iowans to their seats are mostly reflective of Chick Hearn’s ideal — that Iowans do not want to be made to feel inferior, to make others feel inferior, or feel superior to their neighbors either. Hugh Sidey’s writings about his native state revealed this, too. In an era when more and more people are connected to the Internet, and fewer than ever are connected to the person they are next to, Iowa’s gathering places seem to be hanging on to traditional ideals about why we come together. ♦
BY THE NUMBERS
The facts and figures behind Iowa’s 11 largest venues
By Cady Colosimo
Iowa is typically not thought of as a state that gathers large crowds, but residents know this to be untrue, especially on college football Saturdays. The state offers plenty of places for Iowans to gather, whether it’s for sports, concerts or other events. Our state’s cities and towns present a wide range of stadiums, arenas and theaters to fill. While plenty of highly attended festivals and outdoor events occur throughout the state — with organizers boasting outrageous and uncontested attendance numbers — CITYVIEW aimed to find the venues with the actual seats to back up the attendance. From our research, these are 11 of the state’s largest seated facilities and the numbers behind them.
1. KINNICK STADIUM
825 Stadium Drive, Iowa City
Size: 391,108 square feet
Inaugural event: Oct. 5, 1929
Reoccurring events: University of Iowa football
1732 S. Fourth St., Ames
Size: 113,405 square feet
Inaugural event: Sept. 20, 1975, Iowa State football vs. Air Force
Largest crowd: 61,500 on Sept. 5, 2015 (Iowa State University football vs. University of
Reoccurring events: Iowa State University football
1000 N. Lincoln St., Knoxville
Size: approximately 56 acres
Inaugural event: June 4, 1954
Largest crowd: 20,000-plus at annual Knoxville Nationals
Reoccurring events: Races are held every Saturday night from April to September
3333 Rusty Wallace Drive, Newton
Size: approximately 200 acres
Inaugural event: Oct. 15, 2006, ARCA Racing Series Prairie Meadows 250
Reoccurring events: ARCA Racing Series Iowa 150, Verizon IndyCar Series Iowa Corn 300, Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, NASCAR K&N Pro Series Casey’s General Stores 150 presented by Vatterott College and NASCAR XFINITY Series U.S. Cellular 250
703 Third St., Des Moines
Opened: July 12, 2005
Size: 428,700 square feet
Inaugural event: July 14, 2005, Tony Hawk’s Boom Boom Huck Jam
Reoccurring events: Iowa Barnstormers Arena football, Iowa Wolves D-League basketball and Iowa Wild AHL hockey
2501 Hudson Road, Cedar Falls
Inaugural event: Feb. 7, 1976, UNI vs. Iowa wrestling match
Reoccurring events: UNI Panthers football
7. CARVER-HAWKEYE ARENA
1 Elliot Drive, Iowa City
Size: 334,886 square feet
Inaugural event: Jan. 3, 1983, University of Iowa Wrestling vs. Oklahoma
Reoccurring events: University of Iowa men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s gymnastics, volleyball and wrestling
2719 Forest Ave., Des Moines
Inaugural event: Oct. 10, 1925
Largest crowd: 28,311 on Nov. 8, 1949
Reoccurring events: Drake University football, Drake Relays and Iowa State High School Track and Field Championships
1700 Center Drive, Ames
Size: 241,642 square feet
Inaugural event: Dec. 2, 1971, Iowa State University Men’s Basketball vs. Arizona
Reoccurring events: Iowa State University men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, gymnastics and volleyball
1 Line Drive, Des Moines
Inaugural Event: April 16, 1992, Iowa Cubs baseball game
Largest crowd: 18,158 on September 25, 2009 (Dave Matthews Band)
Reoccurring events: Iowa Cubs baseball,
4440 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines
Size: 80 yards wide by 120 yards long
Largest crowd: 10,000-15,000 at annual Valleyfest
Reoccurring events: Valleyfest, Valley High School football, soccer and Des Moines Menace soccer ♦
ISU photos: Iowa State University
UI photos: Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com
UNI photos: University Relations, University of Northern Iowa
Drake University: Drake Athletics
Wells Fargo: Garth Brooks photo- Reese Strickland
Others- Iowa Event Center
Iowa Speedway: NXS Start- Jonathan Moore, Getty Images
Getty 1- Jonathan Moore, Getty Images
IndyCar 1- Chris Jones, INDYCAR
Knoxville Raceway: Studio 92 Photography
Valley: West Des Moines Community Schools