Thursday, December 2, 2021

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Civic Skinny

Why the downtown Y still has no swimming pool.


He has sold the naming rights for $1 million. He has built the building that will house the Prairie Meadows Pool at the new $40 million Wellmark YMCA downtown. Now all Vernon Delpesce needs is the pool.

But to get it, the chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines needs to find $6 million he thought he’d get — but didn’t — from a government program. He has “gone down a lot of paths.” He has “turned over every rock I can find.”

“Everybody wants to see it happen,” he told Cityview last week, but “nobody is stepping up with a big check.”

Along the way, Delpesce has to find another $1 million to reach the goal of private giving, and he has to make sure that those who have pledged $12 million or so come through with the $4.5 million still outstanding. Add those up, and Delpesce has an $11.5-million problem, though the pledge payments are coming in on schedule, he says.

The delay in finishing the project is irking — that’s too soft a word — some regular swimmers at the old Y downtown who donated to the new Y with the expectation it would have a 50-meter indoor pool. Swimmers have had “to temporarily deploy to other facilities,” Delpesce acknowledges. And he knows not all are happy.

The downtown Y opened at the beginning of this year, and Y officials had planned to open the pool this past summer, assuming — as consultants and lawyers had encouraged them to believe — that the facility would get $6 million in New Market tax credits, a federal program to encourage investment in low-income neighborhoods. But the consultants and lawyers were wrong, and the money didn’t come through.

The Y reapplied to the program this year, but “it doesn’t look favorable,” Delpesce says.

“We put too many eggs in that one basket,” he concedes.

The Y already is wading in debt — it sold $14 million in tax-exempt bonds, borrowed $4.5 million from West Bank as a bridge until the old building is sold, and borrowed more millions to cover until pledges are paid down — and it could perhaps borrow the needed $6 million. But then it would be swimming in debt, and the costs would be difficult to manage.

“Debt is a last resort,” Delpesce says.

The organization, which operates nine facilities and has 65,000 members from 25,000 households, doesn’t have a lot of spare cash. While the downtown Wellmark Y is growing rapidly, it is running at a deficit, and overall finances are “very, very tight right now,” Delpesce says. He says the YMCA of Greater Des Moines had a deficit of $100,000 to $150,000 in the fiscal year ended Aug. 31 on revenue of about $23.5 million.

The plan to leave the old riverfront Y and move to the former convention complex at Fifth and Grand has been complicated from the start. As part of a deal under which Polk County bought the old J.C. Penney building (which Wellmark owned and which is becoming courtrooms), the county agreed to give the convention complex to the Y and Wellmark agreed to contribute the plot next door, along Sixth Avenue. Still, $40 million or so was needed to build the Y. The plan was to:

  • Sell $14 million in tax-exempt bonds. This has been done.
  • Raise $13 million from the community. This has almost been done. The campaign is still about $1 million short.
  • Sell the riverfront property for $4.5 million. This will happen next month. Either the Hubbell interests will buy it or the nonprofit Des Moines Redevelopment group will buy it and hold it until another developer comes along. The land is the most attractive development site downtown.
  • Secure the $6 million from New Market credits. This has not happened.
  • Make a deal with Wellmark to acquire the adjacent property — the land where the building that will house the pool now stands. Wellmark donated the $2.5 million parcel in exchange for naming rights to the Y.

The private money came in quickly at first as Bill Knapp, in particular, made the rounds among his rich friends. Delpesce says the Y got $1 million pledges from Knapp, from Jim Cownie, from Principal and from MidAmerican Energy as well as the $1 million from Prairie Meadows. But the final million has been tough to come up with.

And of the $12 million or so pledged, about $4.5 million is yet to come in. So the Y has had to borrow against those pledges, paying the note down as each payment comes in. (Prairie Meadows, for instance, is paying $200,000 a year.) No one has reneged, though. The Y has also borrowed against the $4.5 million it will get when the riverfront land is cleared, which should be next month. What’s more, while the county agreed to pay $1 million to raze the riverfront Y and clear the land, the actual cost came in at around $1.1 million; the Y has to come up with that extra $100,000.

Even if the financial problems disappeared today — if some government agency came up with $6 million, if a contributor came in with $1 million to get the Y to its $13 million goal, if every contributor rushed to pay off the $4.5 million in outstanding pledges — it’s unlikely the pool would be open next summer. It would take a couple of months to get everything in order, and then the construction will take 10 months or so.

“We’re going to get it done,” says Delpesce, who makes about $250,000 as chief executive of the Y. “It’s going to happen.”

But then he says, “None of this has been easy.” …

Political allies Joe Henry and Marty Mauk apparently didn’t learn much from Henry’s loss to Joe Gatto in a special election last year for the south-side seat on the Des Moines city council. Henry won on Election Day — getting 985 votes at the polls to Gatto’s 798. But Gatto’s forces worked hard collecting absentee ballots, and Henry’s didn’t. So Gatto took the absentee vote, 899 to 268, pushing him to an easy election victory.

This month, the same thing happened to Mauk in his bid for the council’s east-side seat. On Election Day, Mauk got 989 votes at the polls to Linda Westergaard’s 875. But Westergaard worked hard getting absentees, and Mauk didn’t. In the end, Westergaard took the absentee vote, 523 to 209, which gave her an overall win.

Even in a contested local election — the Mauk-Westergaard race was fiercely fought — not many people go to the polls. There were 28,115 registered voters in Ward 2, but fewer than 1,100 showed up to vote on Election Day.

The lesson is pretty obvious. But, then, it was pretty obvious last year, too. …Nonfarm employment in Iowa was 1,578,200 for the month of September, the Legislative Services Agency reports. That’s up 15,900 from a year before and 12,500 from August. It’s also up about 80,000 from when Terry Branstad was inaugurated in January of 2011. At the time, he promised to create 200,000 new jobs for the state. He has 120,000 to go. In two months. …

No one seems to have noticed, but Chuck Grassley’s Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved the nominations of Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger and Leonard Strand to be federal judges in Iowa. The action was remarkably quick. The seats opened up this year. President Barack Obama sent the names to the Senate on Sept. 15, the Senate referred the nominations to the Grassley committee on the same day, hearings were held on Oct. 21, and the committee “reported favorably” on the nominations and sent them to the full senate on Nov. 5.

There are 67 vacancies in the federal judiciary, and some are five years old. Grassley has the power to pick and choose which presidential nominations will be moved along, and he clearly has pushed the Ebinger and Strand nominations. Perhaps it’s because of a deal. Perhaps he assured the Democratic president he’d back an important presidential nominee — Wilhelmina Marie Wright of Minnesota, perhaps — in return for the nomination of two Republicans from Iowa. Perhaps.

If approved by the full Senate — that “if” probably should be a “when” — Ebinger will join the bench of the southern district in Des Moines and Strand of the northern district in Sioux City. Ebinger will succeed Jim Gritzner and Strand will succeed Mark Bennett. Both Gritzner and Bennett will remain on the bench as senior judges, meaning they can work as much or as little as they want. CV


Monte Branstad, the governor’s brother, went to court hoping to get the taxpayers to pay his legal bill in a dispute with a state agency. Do you suppose that’s a gene in the Branstad makeup? CV


Who advised the smart guys at the Des Moines Water Works to announce a 10 percent increase in water rates at about the same time they announced a big bonus deal for Bill Stowe? CV

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