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Downtowns reimagined

Courtesy Greater Des Moines CVB

Good things are happening in many of America’s midsize downtowns. Here’s a look at developments that have given four cities downtowns worth meeting in.

Getting it done in Des Moines

Those who are surprised by Des Moines’ vitality don’t grasp the dynamics of the Iowa capital, said Greg Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines CVB.

Not only is the city the capital of the state, it is “an insurance and financial capital in the Midwest,” said Edwards. “That has been our strongest suit — having these very large corporate headquarters here, many which have large offices in the downtown area.”

Between those businesses and state government, “77,000 people work in downtown Monday through Friday. That gives you vibrancy,” he said.

The city also made a move in the 1980s to make downtown Des Moines an all-weather town. It constructed four miles of skywalk, linking businesses, hotels, and convention and arts facilities.

“We can guarantee it will be 72 degrees, 365 days a year,” Edwards said.

In the past decade, Des Moines has beefed up downtown business by building the Wells Fargo Arena and a new convention center, the Iowa Events Center. The old convention center will soon become the home of the city’s YMCA, and with that comes a new Olympic-size pool, which should attract more sports business downtown, Edwards said.

Green space was expanded and enlivened with a riverwalk along the Des Moines River and with the 4.4-acre Pappajohn Sculpture Park in the middle of downtown four years ago.

Around the park, retail businesses seem to be “gaining a lot of steam with new restaurants, nightclubs and a lot of specialty shops,” said Edwards. “And we are on the verge of taking the retail to the next step.” A consultant is focused on ways to expand retail business downtown, and “we are very optimistic that in the next couple of years we will have a couple of major retailers downtown.” It would mark the return of the department-store-type business to city center, Edwards said.

Like other major cities, Des Moines has seen more people living downtown, which boosts any urban area’s energy. “People want to be in a vibrant city,” Edwards said, “and when we bring in meeting planners for site visits, they can see downtown is alive, with a lot of vibe and activity.”