The Elbert files: Adams saw downtown as key
Friday, May 10, 2013 7:00 AM
John Ruan, John Fitzgibbon and others put Des Moines on track 40 years ago to become a 21st-century city, but it was another man, largely forgotten today, who laid the groundwork for them and created the mantra that continues to drive downtown and bind it to the wider metropolitan area.
“A healthy, thriving city must maintain a modern, dynamic downtown,” Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Secretary John D. Adams told local business leaders in 1959.
I discovered Adams earlier this year when I began writing a series of columns marking the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Des Moines chamber in 1888. Adams’ fingerprints, I learned, are on nearly everything of significance that happened here during the Great Depression, World War II and postwar era.
He was a quiet, unassuming man who possessed two skills that are rarely found in the same person. Adams had the brain of an engineer and the marketing sense of a salesman.
His attention to detail and relentless drive inspired generations of Des Moines business leaders from 1926 until his retirement in 1962.
His accomplishments included the establishment of Des Moines International Airport on Fleur Drive in the 1930s and its expansion during the 1940s to include the Air National Guard.
Adams helped attract a World War II armaments plant to Ankeny and, after the war, Deere & Co. During the war, he put together fact sheets that helped persuade the leaders of San Diego-based Solar Aircraft Co. that they could make aircraft parts in an old Ford auto plant at 1800 Grand Ave. (now the Des Moines Independent Community School District’s Central Campus).
After the war, he lobbied Solar to build a new plant on Bell Avenue, which is occupied today by CDS Global Co., the nation’s largest magazine fulfillment business. He also helped attract the Firestone and Armstrong tire companies to Des Moines and to make the city a global center for manufacturing oversized tires for farm and construction equipment.
Born in Oklahoma Territory in 1897, 10 years before it became a state, Adams began taking pictures of sporting events while in high school and developed a lifelong passion for photography, which he later used to promote Des Moines.
He was valedictorian of his 1917 class at Miami, Okla., and served in the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps during World War I.
Adams received an engineering degree in 1920 from the University of Missouri. He never practiced as an engineer, but later used his engineer’s mind to help create and push plans that saw Des Moines grow by more than 40 percent during his more than 30 years at the chamber.
After college, the Sioux City Chamber of Commerce hired Adams to recruit industry and publicize northwest Iowa. He did such a good job that the Des Moines chamber hired him away in 1926. His first job here was as “industrial secretary” to the chamber. In 1929, he became “general secretary,” a job that was the equivalent of chief executive today.
One of Adams’ favorite sayings was: “The work of the chamber is never done. There is no beginning or end, as such.”
During the postwar era, he was among the first to recognize the dangers that shifting demographics posed to downtowns. His obituary in 1979 said: “Before his retirement, Mr. Adams urged revitalization of downtown Des Moines, which he said was deteriorating because the city’s growth was around its outer edges.”
During the 1959 speech in which Adams said cities could not survive without vibrant downtowns, he also said, “Nothing would be so helpful to the downtown area as a large number of walk-to-work apartments.”
Many believe that’s more true today than it was 54 years ago.
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