West Des Moines, Iowa, has been ranked the best city for families by Kiplinger in 2012, the fifth best city for jobs by Forbes in 2013, and was acknowledged for being one of the top hundred places to live in the U.S. by Money in 2012. And these are just a few of the many accolades of this, the seventh-largest city in Iowa.
Since the beginning, West Des Moines has been positioned perfectly. It was incorporated as Valley Junction in 1893 when the railroad industry was dominant. The area boasted two railroad roundhouses prior to the Great Depression.
No longer defined by the railroad industry for which it was named, the city would experience great success and recovery under a new name and a new approach to development. Though it took three attempts to change the name, in 1938, Valley Junction rebranded as West Des Moines, marking a new era of economic success and prosperity for the city.
The construction of the interstate highway system served as a catalyst for West Des Moines’ growth. The construction of the I-235, I-80 and I-35 highways strengthened the area’s logistics and infrastructure and led to a wave of commercial development into the 1970s, including the Valley West Mall regional shopping center.
West Des Moines has experienced significant growth over the last several decades, through long-term planning, innovative thinking and smart decision-making by the city’s leadership. The city has both the forethought and the capacity to execute its development goals.
“The city took a pretty aggressive stance,” said Director of Community and Economic Development Clyde Evans. “We wanted to develop office parks out here; we didn’t want to be just a suburban community. We had some very forward-thinking elected officials as well as people on our planning and zoning commission.”
Stringent building standards were established to encourage long-term development. Paired with the great quality of life, excellent educational opportunities, services, amenities, outdoor parks and recreation spaces, West Des Moines became an ideal place for businesses and families to locate.
“I think that actually helped us, because people who are going to make multi-million dollar investments in property and buildings want to be reasonably assured that their investment is going to be protected, and they knew that whatever came in after them was going to be good, if not better, than their project,” explained Evans.
The Des Moines metropolitan area is known for being an employment center for financial services, insurance and the IT and other services required to support these substantial industries. West Des Moines is no different and is home to numerous financial service and insurance providers.
Another growing sector of the economy is the health industry, which brings individuals and their families to West Des Moines each year to seek treatment in one of the many available medical facilities. “The health sector has become really strong here in the community,” said Evans. “One of the advantages that we have been able to show people is that it’s easy to get here, and there are amenities here in the community.” West Des Moines’ daytime population is estimated around 148,000, with 64,000 calling West Des Moines home.
There are a variety of accommodations and lodging options. With the completion of four hotel projects, West Des Moines will have over fourteen hotels that are well supported by a strong local retail sector, including shopping, entertainment and dining choices.
The Jordan Creek Town Center is a two million square-foot retail development with a reputation that has penetrated state lines. Jordan Creek offers one-of-a-kind, name-brand stores that make it a unique shopping destination in the state of Iowa.
Jordan Creek Town Center is located a mile from I-80 and I-35, enabling the center to capture an equal draw from both. “With the variety of restaurants and shopping, that’s continued to make Jordan Creek Town Center very much a draw. Not only for the state of Iowa, but also for the surrounding area,” stated Evans. Last year the Jordan Creek Town Center welcomed over twenty-four million visitors.
“Once we knew what the land use plan looked like, then we adapted our infrastructure to be able to accommodate that development. We put in probably $80 million in infrastructure to be able to accommodate the Jordan Creek Town Center Project, but it opened up 900 acres in other potential development property for us.”
The city consulted a firm, which conducted an economic analysis helping it understand how much retail, office and residential development it could support. Through this analysis, West Des Moines was able to strategically and comprehensively plan the direction of the city’s development for the future.
“We kind of go the next step in terms of identifying what the infrastructure needs are going to be, and then we program those into our five-year capital improvement plan. In any one year, we are probably paving more lane miles or roads than the state,” explained Evans.
West Des Moines has a comprehensive plan for land use, the infrastructure necessary to support development and an economic development action plan. The city has been issuing building permits with a value over $400 million a year, making every effort to bolster the economic sectors it has targeted for growth: financial services, insurance, IT, life sciences, manufacturing and retail.
Microsoft has a major presence in West Des Moines, with two data centers located here. When completing the second phase of its first forty-two-acre development, the company realized that it required more space and a larger facility. This resulted in the purchase of an additional 156-acre parcel for a new million square foot facility, an investment of $1.12 billion.
West Des Moines undertakes significant business retention and expansion efforts, contacting upwards of eighty businesses a year through its executive call program to gain a sense of the business climate and identify potential opportunities and challenges.
“When you start thinking about the users that we attract, they are not large water users. They are not large sanitary sewer users, which is what cities normally experience, but heavy broadband users. So, we started working with the broadband companies in the community to really encourage them to start beefing up the broadband infrastructure in the community,” Evans explained.
In 2013, Google identified West Des Moines as the best city for e-commerce in the state of Iowa. The honor recognized the city’s efforts to bolster its broadband and fiber optic infrastructure as it worked with local internet providers to offer low and moderate income families free access to five megabytes of broadband. The initiative improved access and connectivity for merchants and families alike.
“We’ve done a really great job of positioning ourselves for future growth and development,” said Evans. “A lot of cities would have had difficulty handling the type of growth that we’ve experienced over the years, and we’ve been able to keep up with that growth. We’ve been able to continue to provide a high quality of life to our residents and our visitors, even though we are very much expanding.”
The development plan includes the historic downtown of Valley Junction. The goal is to revitalize the city’s original main street, making it more of an attraction for locals and visitors alike. West Des Moines has been a part of the National Main Street Program since 1987, and the downtown is home to events and jamborees.
“We’re looking at doing a new master plan for Valley Junction,” said Evans. “We’re really going to be looking at how we can take Valley Junction to the next level.” Plans include housing options and additional office space. The historic buildings will have to be brought up to fire code and sprinkler lines are being installed to which merchants and building owners can attach their sprinkler systems, saving them upwards of $75,000.
The Valley Junction Innovation District will be home to the West Des Moines Business Incubator, the Iowa STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Innovation Zone which and the Nellie Phenix Center for the Arts. “We have a lot of new development, but we don’t want to forget about the older parts of town,” said Evans.
The Nellie Phenix Center will see the conversion of a 1939 historic schoolhouse into a seventeen-unit apartment building. Seventy-five percent of the units are allotted for those with restricted income and twenty-five percent are rented at market rate, with the goal of encouraging the creative class and supporting an arts culture within the community.
“We’ve been working with a futurist to do some visioning on what West Des Moines is going to be in the future and how to position ourselves to take advantage of that future growth. We involve not only the city staff, but also the business community, and we have those good working relationships,” Evans said of the collaborative approach to development.
The collaborative efforts of the city extend to the local school districts. These have also committed to working in cooperation with local businesses in the interest of future growth and prosperity through a major focus on education and workforce development.
The Waukee Community School District has adopted a program called the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) which encourages high school students to become involved in the local workforce to get hands-on business experience. The program exposes them to new professions and new future possibilities.
“The school districts are wanting to get better connected in the business community because we have very high percentages of people that graduate from high school here that go onto college, but we are training them for jobs that they can have here in the community,” explained Evans.
The West Des Moines School District has worked with nonprofit New Tech Network to transform schools into innovative learning experiences. The system uses project-based learning with a focus on professional development and coaching to result in more articulate, confident and collaborative students and future workers.
“We think we can show kids that you don’t have to go to the east or west coast to be successful, that there is certainly very challenging and rewarding careers here locally,” Evans said. “You are going to have much more free disposable income, and you are going to have much more time to do things that you want to do, just because of the quality of life that we have here.”
The city slogan of “Positioned. Perfectly…” does indeed sum up the situation in West Des Moines. With a workforce, infrastructure and long-term plan to support the growth and development taking place, West Des Moines is, in fact, positioned perfectly for a bright and prosperous future.