Friday, June 27, 2014

To Des Moines with Love

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President. 

Recently, after living five years in Des Moines, Iowa, our family packed up and headed south to Macon, Georgia. Medical school for my wife at Des Moines University brought us from Atlanta to Des Moines, while a pediatric residency at the Medical Center of Central Georgia has brought us back, albeit an hour south of Atlanta to the largest city in the state’s central region. Macon is smaller than Des Moines (2012 metro population of 232,398 versus 588,999), the weather-oppressive season is summer instead of winter, the tea is sweeter, the speech twangier, and the college football more obsessive. We found a house in a quaint historic district in Macon fairly similar to our Des Moines neighborhood. For the most part, though, the communities are quite different. I look forward to learning Macon as I did Des Moines, from driving its streets, walking its neighborhoods, and meeting the people that know it best.

Both are Market Street client communities. While I managed the Capital Crossroads process for Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa, I am familiar with the One Macon strategy only from reviewing the reports. Capital Crossroads has been widely embraced by the region – over 500 volunteers have participated in its implementation – while One Macon is just out of the starting block and building its network of implementation partners. We have high hopes that the plan will move the region forward; I’m happy that I’ll have a front-row seat for the proceedings.

From both a personal and professional perspective, I owe a great debt to Des Moines. We adopted our lovely daughter Everly during our time there and my wife achieved her dream of becoming a doctor. We met some awesome people and experienced things unheard of for Los Angeles and Birmingham natives – fried sticks of butter at the Iowa State Fair, blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, a “farm crawl” of different family-owned operations, Beggar’s Night (Halloween is held on October 30 in Des Moines), and other wonders too numerous to mention. Seeing the current and ongoing growth and development of Downtown Des Moines, the East Village, the Western Gateway, Court Avenue, the Ingersoll corridor, and activity centers in suburban cities fed both my personal and professional passions.

Above all, however, living in Des Moines was a primer on the essence of successful communities. It confirmed and informed much that comprises my worldview on economic and community development and what drives success. Both my engagement in Capital Crossroads and my embeddedness as a resident and stakeholder provided a unique and focused lens on the day-to-day, action-by-action, person-by-person evolution of a thriving region. Despite the presence of large companies, impressive physical development, surprisingly diverse shopping, dining, and entertainment amenities, and beautiful natural environment, what makes Des Moines work is its people – most notably, its public and private leadership.

There is a synergy and synchronicity to decision-making and advancement of initiatives large and small that seem always calibrated to local and regional improvement. Most often, this synthesis extends beyond geographic boundaries and party affiliation to focus purely on what will make the place better. Some of the most vehement proponents of efforts to end homelessness were registered Republicans, while lead investors in complex land-swap and development deals were Democrats. Most often I was surprised to learn a leader’s political affiliation; in the grand scheme – though of course not always – these details were not relevant to the efficacy of public-private partnerships.

Though I heard it so much during Capital Crossroads public input that it almost became a mantra, leadership in Greater Des Moines really is eminently approachable and available to support efforts as ambitious as a sculpture park and quotidian as coffee with a new arrival to the region. My cynical brain eventually had to wrap itself around the fact that this was the truth of this place; leaders almost universally demonstrated allegiance and obligation to the community-at-large in addition to their companies. I’ll never forget the sight of one of the most powerful private leaders in Greater Des Moines sitting in a rickety folding chair in the dimly lit basement of a small inner city church passionately trying to convince the pastor to support Capital Crossroads. The pastor’s blessings wouldn’t have made or broken the initiative; it was just the right thing to do.

Once established, great leadership is self-sustaining. The expectations of new executives and elected officials are to maintain the high standard of leadership established by generations prior. One of the principal concerns of top public and private officials in Capital Crossroads was the development of the next cohort of leaders to move the region forward. What emerged is Community Connect (one of few formalized executive mentorship programs in the country). And these new leaders are emerging; too numerous to mention. Des Moines is increasingly a place that retains or “boomerangs” its top talent and can attract smart, ambitious folks from outside the region. I’m convinced that the presence of “new blood” and its fresh and different perspective is a de facto requirement of successful communities.

This account of metro Des Moines has definitely accentuated the positives. Does the region have challenges? Of course. Is every leader as civic-minded and forward-thinking as those I’ve mentioned? No. But, as a Market Street co-worker calls it, the “secret sauce” of Greater Des Moines and Central Iowa has reached critical mass. A new “top 10” ranking seemingly every week is testament that the corner has been turned. I look forward to watching the region continue to advance and evolve, albeit now from a distance.

And I hope to see some of these same qualities in Macon, Georgia. I’m happy to report that I’ve already found a place to get a great falafel.