The Elbert files: Greater DM idea:123 years old
Friday, April 12, 2013 7:00 AM
The shape of Des Moines and the form of city government here owe much to the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber’s predecessor, the Commercial Exchange, was a key player in a series of government mergers during the 1890s that resulted in a nearly sixfold expansion of the city’s geography.
The Exchange also provided key support to the turn-of the-century good-government movement that created the forerunner of today’s council-manager form of government.
I’ve been looking into the early history of Des Moines as part of a yearlong effort marking the 125th anniversary of the Des Moines chamber. I learned that the Des Moines business community has a long history of civic involvement that goes back to the founding of the Exchange and continues today with the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Capital Crossroads vision plan.
One of the first projects tackled by the Exchange after it was created in 1888 was expanding Des Moines’ city limits. Des Moines at the end of the 19th century faced a situation not unlike its position 100 years later. The city was virtually landlocked, with much high-value development occurring in the surrounding suburbs.
In those days, the city limits enclosed a rectangle that was roughly 2 miles from north (University Avenue) to south (the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers) and about 4 miles wide from west (Drake University) to east (about a dozen blocks west of the Capitol).
Surrounding the city was a ring of suburbs: North Des Moines, University Place, Greenwood Park, Sevastapol, Gilbert, Grant Park, Easton Place and Capital Park.
In 1889, a “Greater Des Moines movement was born which resulted in the annexation,” according to a history of the chamber written in 1938.
“These suburbs contained some of the better residential and commercial-development sites,” Des Moines Register editorial writer Rox Laird wrote in a 1990 retrospective. The suburbs needed city services, including streets, streetcars and water. The solution was to merge the suburbs into Des Moines and use the combined tax base to cover the costs.
To do that, the city needed authorizing legislation. Des Moines lawyer and state senator Conduce H. Gatch won passage of a law that allowed cities with more than 30,000 people to extend their boundaries by up to 2.5 miles in all directions. The law passed and the mergers were quickly completed.
Many of the same business leaders stepped forward again at the turn of the century to push for a change in the form of local government. The 1938 chamber history said the Commission Plan of government “was adopted on June 20th (of 1907), after several years of intensive work” by chamber members. Motivation for the change? A City Hall fraught with corruption. The change replaced corrupt aldermen with four commissioners elected to run specific city departments.
The commission system lasted through World War II, after which Des Moines shifted to a business-backed council-manager form of government. More recently, business leaders were involved in unsuccessful efforts in 1994 and 2004 to re-create the magic of the 1890s by merging the governments of the city of Des Moines and Polk County, and they helped lead a failed bid in 2007 to obtain much-needed cash for local governments with a one percentage point increase in the sales tax in Polk County.
The chamber and its modern parent organization, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, have been leaders in every major civic improvement effort of modern times, including the Des Moines Vision Plan and Major Projects Task Force of the 1990s, which created consensus and muscle for downtown redevelopment, including Western Gateway Park, the Principal Riverwalk, the East Village, downtown housing and the Iowa Events Center.
It is also the driving force for the current Capital Crossroads efforts to unite Central Iowa around new visions for 21st-century developments.
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