New Success Built on Old Strengths: How Des Moines Keeps Winning

Listen to the full, unabridged interview with Mayor Cownie.*

As I prepared to interview Frank Cownie, Mayor of Des Moines, the sheer quantity of awards this capital of Iowa had received started to seem overwhelming.  Just to further compound that sense of overwhelm, hours before the scheduled interview date, Forbes Magazine named Des Moines the number 2 city in America for finding a job, behind only Washington DC.  It was hard not to wonder… What’s so special about Des Moines, Iowa that has elicited so much praise?

One of the things that emerged in the course of the conversation was that, while so many cities have been focused on looking for the newest, coolest, highest tech solution to modern challenges, the answers often reside in the least trendy of places.  Not high tech, but low tech; not sophisticated, but fundamental; not novel or innovative, but instead, the familiar and fundamental.  A lot of what is working in Des Moines and in Iowa is a modern approach to leveraging traditional products and services, using long-lived core competencies, and creating new business models from within the heart of bedrock industries that have been here forever and yet are as essential and valuable today as they were in the early 19th century.  So, while other communities may focus their economic development efforts on attracting new technology companies Des Moines remains focused on its core strengths: financial services and insurance, and the new businesses that synergize with them.

Downtown Des Moines Map

Des Moines is set located in the center of America, at the juncture of two rivers, the Raccoon and the Des Moines. It is located on and surrounded by some of our nation’s most fertile and productive agricultural land and has the Midwest vista that many see as charming, with 2 rivers that wind through town, scenic bridges and the natural undulations of the land formed by the movement of water over millennia.  It also has huge temperature and precipitation fluctuations from season to season, with copious rainfall in later spring, and consistent snowfall during the winter.  Plus, it is prone to flooding and has experienced the worst in its history over the last 10 years, including a flood in 2008 said to have been the “high water mark” of the previous 500 years. To compound the flooding and freezing temperatures, Des Moines is in a tornado zone. The Mayor, T.M. Franklin (Frank) Cownie, is intimately familiar with all of these Iowan traits. He was born and bred in Des Moines, as were his parents before him.  Among many business interests, Cownie owns and operates Cownie Furs, a descendent of Des Moines’ history as a fur trading capital.  Cownie’s business background, coupled to a core belief in public service has led to his strength in building business and government collaborations and partnerships. That mix of private and public working in concert has helped to create a period of growth and accomplishment previously unseen in Des Moines.

Even before Cownie was mayor, Des Moines had a proud tradition of investing in beautification programs throughout its neighborhoods and parks, as well as in it s downtown corridor. So there was a path and community commitment in place for ongoing investment in quality of life programs.   The community is proud of its ongoing investment in quality of life programs.  But the work done under Mayor Cownie’s administrations has significantly contributed to that trend.   In the last 5 years alone, Des Moines has won more top ten rankings than is practical to list here.  Amongst that enormous list of accolades and top rankings are high rankings in the following lists: 10 Best Cities for the Next Decade (by Kiplinger’s), Best Cities for Young Professionals (Forbes), and the Best for Business (MarketWatch).  There are another 30 or more similar accolades the City has been awarded during the past couple of years.  They are all listed on both the Convention and Visitors Bureau the City’s and the the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s websites.

So you might say that something is working in Des Moines.  Much of what Mayor Cownie describes conjures a sense of an ethos of attending to the city’s livability on an ongoing basis.  Rather than provide a list of specific projects, he points to a perpetual conversation with business owners and other City customers about what is important to them.  Some examples of the ongoing collaboration between the City and its businesses include the Principal Riverwalk, the World Food Prize, an exemplary public art project, 4 miles of weather protected sky-walks and more.

Cities have all seen a rise in interest in their downtowns, and have largely encouraged that growth in an effort to re-grow city centers and bring vitality back from the sprawling suburbs.  But often, efforts to grow a downtown end up with high-end condominiums occupied by wealthy retirees or high-paid executives, and no affordable housing for the people one hopes will work in the restaurants, bars and retail outlets that the city leaders visualize lining the streetscape.   Des Moines has grown more than its commercial property occupancy rate.  It has grown a vibrant downtown community for all ages and economic levels.  The skywalks mentioned above were not just for comfort.  (“[T]he thought was that by putting skywalks on the second level of buildings, retail corridors could be created at the entrances to those skywalks. Shoppers would stop to buy while walking to the garage or to lunch.” That is to say, the intent behind much of the infrastructure investments has been to consider how it would impact all potential customers, including large companies, but also, service employees, renters, homeowners, retail and visitors.  Des Moines has experienced a 400% Increase in rentals, so it seems that the steps taken to build a magnetic downtown have worked, attracting people of all walks of life, income levels and background to live, work and play in the downtown.  It is not a downtown with only banks and insurance companies, it is a city that also has rental housing that young service employees can afford, making it possible to live and work downtown, and possibly walk to work rather than drive.  The fact that the cost of living in Des Moines is 8% lower than the national average certainly helps young people and lower wage employees to live better and closer to the city center – as it does all people.  Having a concentration of businesses, housing and recreation in the downtown also makes it possible to live comfortably without the pressure of expenses like car repairs and with reduced anxiety about rising gas prices, as driving is less critical than it is when commuting miles to work every day.  Of course, less driving also helps to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, adding to its overall greenness – something else that the Mayor believes is critical to his city.

T.M. Franklin Cownie, Mayor of Des Moines

The Mayor’s office along with the Greater Des Moines Partnership all spend time regularly visiting with businesses of every size and looking for ways to enhance the business environment and build the vitality of the city’s economy.  Of course, in some ways, this is true of every city.  But there is unique character to Des Moine’s strategy.  Across the country, cities are attempting to form industry clusters – often to replace clusters that are believed to be too low-paying or insufficiently “modern”.  In Des Moines, they could hardly have more traditional industry clusters.  The city’s economic foundation comes primarily from the financial sector, from financial services and insurance.  And Greater Des Moines is also home to many agricultural businesses, including Dow Chemical and Monsanto.

But instead of seeking to replace or displace those stalwarts, they have developed new and novel ways to build an entire ecosystem of industry in support of those business segments.  For example local business incubators support budding entrepreneurs who have innovative business ideas by renting them space very inexpensively and providing mentoring through the incubator.  That’s not unique – incubators are popping up all over the country – and there are plenty in Des Moines, with various missions and focuses.  In one incubator in particular, a requirement of these start-ups is that they be in the business service or service area.  For most start-up businesses, despite the advent of Internet marketing, it’s easier to sell locally where you can realistically meet your prospective customers and look them in the eye.  By directing new businesses toward a synergistic role with already sustainable local business verticals– the insurance industry, the agricultural trade, sustainable building and so forth—developing businesses grow into a kind of instant role in a supply chain, strengthening the entire local economic system. So along with the globally-oriented technology start-ups and Internet companies that are growing in Des Moines (especially with the support of the universities and community colleges), there is an emphasis on building businesses that will find a strong, already fully developed, economic base in Des Moines.

This emphasis on the traditional, long-standing businesses has several very modern twists on it – some of which have global implications.  As an agriculturally rich part of the country there are a number of ancillary businesses that are also strong – those that support agriculture. It’s no surprise that John Deere is based in the state of Iowa and its financial services and logistics divisions are headquartered in Des Moines.  Many other farm equipment companies are based in the region, like Vermeer, based in Pella, and the seed company Pioneer (a subsidiary of Dupont) is in greater Des Moines.   So this ecology of industry clusters in and around the businesses that have been stalwarts of the Iowan economy for decades, continues to flourish.  As important as this is to the local, regional and state economies, there is also a global advantage.  Nationally, the pressure is on to grow GDP and shrink the nation’s trade deficit.  With that in mind, finding ways to sell outside of the local – even outside of the national economy — are inherently smart moves.  Exporting to China, India, Pakistan, Africa, Latin and Central America and more are ways to build the country’s trade strength – and ways to build a local economy as well.  Recently, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Des Moines as part of a trade mission to the US.  The resulting deal is bringing upwards of $4.3b in soybean purchase alone to the local economy.   That kind of deal casts the trade deficit in a slightly different light – the same new perspective that pervades the Des Moines success story: Traditional products and services that form a core competency in the Des Moines region, are more exportable than manufactured new technology.

Skywalk in use.


While the Chinese and other Asian economies may be able to provide low-cost manufacturing of high tech goods, they lack many of the natural and cultivated resources we have.  They can never produce enough nutritious food for their population; there simply isn’t enough land.  They are unlikely to master the kinds of agricultural skill, agri-technology or the development of farming and other heavy equipment that we have.  They don’t need to – they can buy from us. They can certainly develop brains and innovate in a variety of areas – but no future will eradicate the need to grow or eat food. With China’s growing population, a commensurate need for biotechnological know-how and the food it produces exists – and with its growing economic strength and the corporate and personal wealth that comes with it will come a demand for food that is attractive for survival and attractive for discretionary spending.   That allows for the natural evolution of the agricultural cluster in and around Des Moines to continue to grow in its sophistication, encompassing biotechnology, bio-engineering and so forth.  But the theme is clear,  it is all organic growth, none of it artificially constructed for the sake of “economic development”.

Returning to the mayor’s commitment to “greening” Des Moines, this too is far more than PR or artifice. The Mayor has advocated for and has been joined by the city as a whole in supporting adoption of environmentally friendly technology and sustainable practices and principles for at least the last six years. “In 2006, the City Council adopted twelve goal statements, one of which was for Des Moines to become a Sustainable Green Community. In 2007, City Council adopted the Energy Conservation and Environmental Enhancement Policy which provided goals and a number of principles based on the built environment, the natural environment, and property management, acquisition, and disposal.”    In November of 2011, Mayor Cownie was awarded the National Environmental Hall of Fame Award.  Des Moines has the first public library likely to be certified LEED Platinum (Franklin Avenue Library) as well as the first certified LEED Platinum commercial office building of its size in the world (Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield building.  And the City’s annual report contains a substantial sustainability section. The Mayor’s and the City’s highly visible efforts on the green front has produced so much of a groundswell that many local businesses are embracing the ROI of investing now in sustainable development.  They receive incentives from the City, but the level of support goes beyond that.  The businesses undertaking LEED certification are not simply looking for tax credits, they see a long-term and perpetual ROI on going the distance toward sustainability, and doing so now.  Moreover, in every project and initiative – many of which have no direct green-oriented impetus – sustainability emerges as a benefit.

I started off by referencing a culture in the Des Moines City Hall of collaboration between the local government, the business community and the citizens. That clearly exists.  The large companies in Des Moines, those in the insurance and financial services industries, clearly have had a hand in supporting the ongoing economic strength and growth of the city.  They are significant job-creators with a stake in continuing to attract smart employees.  Des Moines has a lot of those kind of businesses, more than many cities their size (1 for every 568 residents).  But that same culture of involvement penetrates to a far more grassroots level than is common.  Rather than there being a clear delineation between the participation and dialogue of the city with huge companies versus mom and pop enterprises, there is genuine collaboration between large and small businesses, profit and not for profit, elected officials, City employees and citizens who are all dedicated to working together.  For example, in the East Village, an area that had lost much of its luster over years and had several buildings slated for demolition, the City got on board with a potential project that required the buy-in of residents and businesses in the neighborhood.

The buildings (like those in many parts of America) had been built in the 1960s.  They were products of an aesthetic that envisioned a future of cement, with sweeping vistas of blank walls.  The renovation concept started with that visual impact. A common approach to that issue is to tear everything down and start new.  But of course, new buildings look, well… new.  Des Moines had developed a master plan for the redevelopment of its downtown corridor which incorporated renovation of historic buildings with unique architecture that has made the landscape a brilliant combination of new and old.   So in the East Village, instead of a clean sweep, the proposal was to remove all of the facades and to reveal the brick beneath, or in some case, add brick and make the street look more varied and less planned.  The City in collaboration with local citizens offered to provide all of the streetscaping necessary to support the new facades.[i] Along with that streetscape plan, and in a commitment to include local talent and local visions, they held a contest for cool design of bike racks.  Again, the City returns to its sustainability theme…encouraging the use of bicycles without adding regulation or even talking about cycling per se.  Designs ranged from free-form sculpture to a metal, spotted dog lifting his leg – and all of them are bike racks.  Over the course of 10 years or so the area has become a trendy place to live, work and visit.   Perhaps most importantly though, the successful transformation can be owned by everyone.  The city had a role – but so did the developers, landlords, business owners, residents and cultural groups.

Spotted dog bike rack, East Village

For most residents in most cities, quality of life is a truly personal and local phenomenon.  While grand city issues are extremely important – everything from the comprehensive development plan to jobs growth – most peoples’ direct experience rarely extends far beyond one’s own block or dog-walking range (or commuting traffic).  In Des Moines, the City has taken the same collaborative approach at the very local level, with an outreach program that goes directly to the neighborhoods to listen in at meetings, offer information and solicit ideas for how to make life better at this very local level.  They do this in a couple of ways. Des Moines has 61 strong Neighborhood Associations whose leaders work with the City to identify issues and opportunities.  This system has enabled the effective allocation of resources and empowered neighborhoods to prioritize their needs, cultivating a partnership between the City and Neighborhood Associations that has led to satisfaction and benefits beyond what one can quantify.

In addition to the collaboration between Neighborhood Associations and the City, Des Moines has a “Neighborhood Based Service Delivery Program” that sends Parks, Police and other City professionals to neighborhood meetings quarterly, to both hear the specific concerns and mood, and to solicit input. “The primary objective of these teams is to assist neighborhoods in identifying and prioritizing concerns, planning a course of action and implementing solutions to solve problems.” The Police even have a Facebook page to promote and support their efforts.

There is clearly much more to say about Des Moines and its success.  Maybe the best way to find out if it all really is as great as every media outlet in the country has suggested is to go there.  But in the interim, Mayor Cownie offered his perspective on what he has learned as mayor, and what he thinks might be helpful to those who may want someday to lead a city, or those who find themselves in that role already.  It comes down to collaboration and working together.  He has led through example and through demonstrating that shared visions have more support and success than those that are dictated.  Like most businesspeople, he couches this approach in strategic terms.  It’s critical to know where you want to go, to have a vision – one that includes your own as Mayor, but also the vision of the citizens and businesses in a shared whole.  But to achieve that, you have to start by evaluating where you are now, what your strengths and weaknesses may be, and create clear plans to accomplish filling the gaps between the present and that future. In Des Moines, many of those plans are in place, and while the City seems to have succeeded in fulfilling a vision, Mayor Cownie sees a great deal further to go.  His vision is to continue to create more economic, cultural and quality of life opportunities in Des Moines.  Given the track record of accolade piled on accolade, it won’t be surprising to see that trend continue.  But perhaps by watching how Des Moines shapes its future those of us in other cities can improve the quality of life in our hometowns, and perhaps join Des Moines on the one or several Top Ten lists.

Additional Materials









[i] Janis Ruan lead the downtown landscaping  vision along with the Fleur Drive renovation which was funded by Ruan Companies and the City

* Although the interview is complete and unabridged, additional material is included in this article.