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Guest Commentary

Knapp praises foresight of Forsyth

7/24/2013

Des Moines leaders have shown great foresight when it comes to downtown. One in particular is John Forsyth, the chief executive officer of Wellmark.

It’s been great to watch the improvements and development in downtown over the past decade, including, among other things:

The Iowa Events Center and Veterans Auditorium;

The Nationwide Insurance headquarters;

The Wellmark BlueCross headquarters;

The Papajohn Sculpture Park; and

Multiple housing projects.

For me, the question was “what next?” How can we move the progress of downtown ahead?

City and county leaders have called upon the business community to help assemble or acquire priority sites to accelerate redevelopment. The business leaders responded by forming Des Moines Redevelopment Corp., where around 20 businesses and individuals put up their credit to acquire and assemble sites downtown. The first acquisition was a site for a potential hotel near the convention center. This is a very good first step.

Next was the identification of needs and opportunities for downtown:

Polk County needs space for the courts.

The former convention complex (The “Plex”) was no longer in service or needed.

The vacant land next to the Plex owned by Wellmark is no longer needed because Wellmark built its new headquarters up the street on Grand Avenue.

The former Penney’s building, also owned by Wellmark, is no longer in use.

The Riverfront YMCA is in need of remodeling, expansion or replacement.

The city has identified the Riverfront YMCA site as a top redevelopment site in downtown Des Moines.

A solution to these needs came into focus by bringing in public and private partners to work together, and the linchpin was John Forsyth, whose company owned the Penney’s building and the vacant land next to the Plex.

The Penney’s building is across the street from the Polk County Courthouse and is big enough to accommodate the needs of the court system.

The Plex, according to Y leaders and architects, turned out to be a great place to accommodate a new YMCA, and the first 50-meter Olympic-size swimming pool in Des Moines could be built on the adjacent Wellmark land.

And the relocation of the Y to the Plex will make the Riverfront YMCA land available for redevelopment.

Forsyth stepped up. He agreed to trade the former Penney’s building to the county for the Plex. As part of the deal, he agreed to sell the Plex to the YMCA and donate the vacant remainder of the block to the Y to allow construction of the pool.

The business community then contributed more than $9 million to help the Y relocate. Planning is under way to secure funds to demolish the current downtown Y and acquire the site for development.

The result: The county gets its much-needed space for courts, the Y gets a new state-of-the-art facility on the skywalk downtown, and a great riverfront site becomes available for development.

These events, which happened pretty quickly, moved downtown forward at least 10 years or more. They could not have been done without the foresight of Forsyth. CV

Bill Knapp, 87, is a philanthropist, a long-time developer and a civic leader.

Barmuda