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A per-Plexing problem


Now that Veterans Memorial Auditorium is finally undergoing rehab – it’s basically a good building that got involved with the wrong crowd – we need to get serious about the future of the Polk County Convention Complex.

When the average Central Iowan thinks about this unit at the corner of Fifth and Grand avenues, it’s something like: “Nice modern building in a prime location.” If you were visiting from a medium-sized town in the boonies, you might think, “If only we had that baby right between the Wal-Mart and the Casey’s; that would make Cherokee so jealous.” Or if you’re from Omaha: “Wow, I wonder where they bought such clean windows.”

But the people who actually have to deal with the Polk County Convention Complex – or The Plex, as I’m willing to call it when being held at knifepoint – wonder what in the world to do with it.

The original backers wanted it right downtown on the skywalk system, which sounded sensible. But so many events require much more room than The Plex can provide, and that’s why we now have the Iowa Events Center, a skateboard ride away from most of the hotels and restaurants.

Oh, you can walk up the hill in a few minutes, but it’s just far enough that by the time the typical convention attendee gets to Hy-Vee Hall, he forgets why he wanted to go there.

Another part of the problem with The Plex is its age, and that issue I don’t understand at all. I think the building has been standing patiently at the corner of Fifth and Grand for about 25 years, but let me check my diary. … Yes, here’s the entry from 1985: “Good day at work – Mr. Gartner gave me half of his cookie, although I had to do a somersault first. The Convention Center opened. This building uses a layered system of glass circulation on a metal clad core to express the shift in the downtown street grids.” Ah, memories; how flattered I was when The American Institute of Architects swiped that last sentence to use in a book.

Twenty-five years doesn’t seem like much of a return on construction costs. One would think that a building should last longer than the circular saws used to assemble it.

In Europe, a building that’s a mere quarter-century old needs padding at the sidewalk level; pedestrians keep bumping into it because they keep forgetting it’s there. “Ach du lieber,” they exclaim, or “Mon Dieu.” (You’re allowed to exclaim in any language over there, although you must gesture in Italian.)

So it’s strange that our tribute to the rectangle is considered old. It’s not that The Plex is sagging or leaning, like half of the structures in rural Iowa.

It does, however, need a new roof, according to Project Manager Sue Elliott at the Polk County Board of Supervisors. Also, the escalators need fixing, as does the freight elevator, and it would be nice to wire the place for Wi-Fi access.

And then what? Elliott said the list of possible uses hasn’t changed since it was compiled by Economics Research Associates in 2008.

You can’t accuse the associates of taking a narrow view. They suggested everything from “indoor water park” to “film studio space.” They wondered if the 85,000 square feet might work as a concert venue or a “destination bookstore.” When you get to “heated parking,” you start to suspect that they had a quota to fill.

The company also noted that in Washington, D.C., redevelopment plans for an old convention center site include a mix of retail, office, residential and parking. In Portland, Ore., city officials thought maybe Home Depot Inc. would be interested in their former convention space.

Apparently, lots of cities made poor decisions about convention centers the last time around.

But I’m sure we can find an exciting use for this structure with great access and loading facilities, wide-open floor space and adequate sunlight. And that’s why I’d like to drop by your office sometime and show you a brief PowerPoint about hydroponics.

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