Envisioning a Des Moines of the future
Fritz Jünker has a vision for Des Moines, one that doesn’t involve multimillion-dollar housing projects, office buildings or shopping malls, but rather a rich music culture that will spur population growth and inspire future economic development.
“I very clearly see a Des Moines in the future that looks like a Minneapolis or an Austin, that’s thriving, that’s interesting and diverse,” said Jünker, founder and president of the Des Moines Music Coalition. “I can see it clear as day. And that’s the fuel that keeps me going like this. It’s a compelling challenge.”
In just under one year, the 29-year-old Keokuk native has turned his dream for Des Moines into a massive grassroots effort to develop a thriving live music scene. The coalition’s membership has grown to include more than 500 musicians, promoters, club owners, community leaders, music fans – even Gov. Tom Vilsack. The non-profit organization’s Web site receives up to 1,500 hits a day.
At the same time, Jünker has all but abandoned his home repair business to devote 60 to 70 hours a week to the coalition. He calls himself the “best-dressed panhandler in town,” holding out his tin cup to corporations and private donors for funding and sponsorships, a process he said has been frustrating. He experiences constant ignorance from people who refuse to see the economic and quality-of-life benefits in Greater Des Moines. And the rewards have been few and far between.
“There are days when I hate it,” he said. “There are days when I want to run screaming out of the city and never come back.”
But Jünker has chosen to stay here, for now anyway, because he sees the potential for positive change in Des Moines, and the opportunity for a 20-something to make a difference in his community. And he has brought in dozens of other leaders like him to create a louder voice in the community.
“I think a lot of people are getting motivated because they see the progress we’ve made, and that’s a powerful thing,” he said. “That’s an intangible that you can’t put a number to. When you can instill passion in young leaders, it’s going to have an impact.”
CARING FOR THE ARTS
Jünker calls himself a “born promoter. I probably had the highest-grossing lemonade stand in Keokuk for several years running.” He got into music at 13 and has played in and managed bands, booked venues, produced records and even created a short film, “The Truth About Beef Jerky.”
He absorbs music and everything about the industry. He has a collection of more than 2,000 CDs, though he said he’s been consumed by the MP3 revolution and loves the communal experience of live music.
While attending Iowa State University, Jünker traveled to Nigeria to teach and study ethnomusicology, the study of music and its effect on culture. In Nigeria, and later in Brazil, he saw how strongly those countries’ cultures are tied to music and music performance, and its positive influence on the countries. Though not as prevalent in the United States, he sees that same level of music appreciation in cities such as Seattle and Austin, Texas.
He spent several years in California and later returned to Des Moines, having witnessed sparks of life in the city’s music industry, particularly at the Vaudeville Mews, which since reopening more than two years ago has brought in lesser-known bands and musicians that had been bypassing the city.
“The sad thing is that it’s not as successful as it should be, because I don’t think people understand what quality is sometimes,” Jünker said.
But he doesn’t place blame on the Mews’ owners, but rather on the corporate structure of the local radio market, where stations can’t break with format and play music by local bands or those scheduled to perform at local clubs. Jünker said a lack of exposure for those bands on the local airwaves prevents some music fans from getting a taste for their music and buying a ticket for their shows.
If Des Moines were able to establish an independent radio presence and break a local band onto the national scene, Jünker said it would instantly make the market change. He hopes the Des Moines Music Coalition is able to bring those goals to fruition. Part of achieving those will come through the establishment, beginning this fall, of the Des Moines Music Coalition Festival Series and Des Moines Music Coalition Presents series, which the organization believes will draw attention to the Des Moines market on a national level.
Mews owner Amedeo Rossi, treasurer of the Des Moines Music Coalition, said Des Moines is experiencing unbelievable development with its infrastructure – such as housing, office developments and roads – but must focus on making itself more appealing to young people and improving the quality of life through music “because it’s a powerful medium.”
“The next step for maturity for Des Moines is to take care of the arts,” Rossi said.
He said failure to do that would threaten Des Moines’ ability to compete with other mid-size cities that aspire to become the next Austin. The cities with the most creative ideas and progressive leadership, Jünker added, are the cities that will come out on top in the next five to 10 years. Des Moines will need to attract and support quality music, which in turn will attract and retain the types of people that the city needs to survive.
Those involved in Des Moines’ music industry turn to Omaha both as a form of competition and as evidence that the city’s music scene can succeed. The successes of Omaha-based Saddlecreek Records, which has pushed several Omaha bands into the spotlight, of an independent radio station have helped the city become buzz-worthy on a national level.
“Ultimately what we want to focus on is being an incubator of the Omaha scene, where people are not afraid to start a band and talent can rise, because there’s just as much talent here,” Rossi said.
On a larger scale, Austin, Texas, a city of nearly 700,000 people, has become what some consider the music capital of the world. The city attributes more than $616 million in economic activity, nearly 11,200 jobs and more than $11 million in city tax revenues to the effect of music on the local economy. Jünker and his supporters repeatedly tell anyone who will listen that the money contributed to the coalition could come back to Des Moines exponentially.
“If we could capture 1 percent of that, it would be outstanding,” said Des Moines City Councilman Michael Kiernan.
But the true effect, they argue, is less tangible. If businesses pitch in to support a growing music economy, the city will more easily attract bright young professionals in search of a fun, lively community, and companies will reap the benefits.
“The impact of a cultural, creative revolution on this city would be something that you can’t gauge immediately in financial terms, but it has meaning in economic development, workforce retention and attraction, and quality of life,” Jünker said.
He said many people move to Omaha simply because they want to be a part of its vibrant music scene. But it’s not just musicians and promoters.
“Young people in the workforce these days don’t make their decision as much based on the job as they do where they live and what that area can offer them,” he said. “They tend to move to areas where there is a strong cultural draw and a sense of creative community.”
Jünker sees the coalition as part of a larger statewide youth movement, through which organizations such as the Young Professionals Connection and Impact Downtown have drawn the attention of business and community leaders. The time for these organizations to act, and the time for the community to listen, is now, he said.
“It’s a small window of opportunity, and it’ll go away if it’s not nurtured,” he said. “I see that timeline as about two years. And I think once that window of opportunity is closed, I don’t see it opening again for this city, because it’s so competitive that those young people are going to make a final determination and they’re going to leave.”
Jünker counts himself among those with a deadline. He said he will re-evaluate his situation in January 2007, leaving him 18 months “to work myself to the bone.”
“If I don’t feel what I’m doing is appreciated and supported financially, I’ll leave and take my skills and talents elsewhere,” he said. “I’m a businessman at heart and I’m not going to work for free.”
Jünker emphasizes that sense of urgency as he encourages funding sources to take action and support the coalition. He questions whether companies are really listening and understand what a vibrant music culture could do for Des Moines, however intangible the benefits may be.
Ed Brown, CEO of The Iowa Clinic, gives credence to Jünker’s arguments, and realizes that his own company would benefit from being in the type of city Jünker envisions, particularly in recruiting medical students who have been exposed to entertainment venues in other cities during medical school.
“What he’s talking about has some relevance for the future of our community,” said Brown, who has served as a mentor to Jünker for more than six months, providing advice and encouragement as he works with companies, elected officials and community leaders to get his message out and garner support. Brown compared Jünker’s efforts to herding cats: Everyone has a different perspective in how to approach the situation in order to create success.
Kirk Blunck, president of Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture, has also served in a mentorship role to Jünker, who he said will need people such as himself and other business people “to cut through the red tape.” Blunck provides encouragement to Jünker, using the Des Moines Arts Festival as an example of a success that arose despite opposition over its relocation to downtown Des Moines
“In any of these endeavors it takes patience,” Blunck said. “It’s a tightrope to walk from being energetic and impatient and wanting to move things forward and tempering that to not be discouraged when it takes time.”
Jünker and the Des Moines Music Coalition have garnered notable support from the public sector as well, beginning at the Iowa Statehouse. Gov. Vilsack was among the first to shell out membership dues to the coalition, which Jünker said was “super cool.”
“This is an important initiative because it reflects Iowa’s investment in culture and recreation,” said Vilsack spokesman Matt Paul. “Vision Iowa has $2 billion worth of investment in that throughout the state. Part of the opportunity of the Des Moines Music Coalition is to carry that energy through in not only brick and mortar, but in sending a message to young people that this is a cool place.”
Through Kiernan’s partnership with the coalition, the Des Moines City Council is now two votes away from approving the creation of the Des Moines Music Commission, similar to the Austin Music Commission, which would serve in an advisory role to the council, provide support to the Des Moines music industry and ensure the development and expansion of the city’s live music economy.
Each of the seven commissioners would be appointed by the mayor or a city council member. At least two commissioners must be 30 years old or younger, and at least six must be selected from representatives of membership-based music organizations.
Jünker hopes the commission would be able to work with the city to perhaps lighten rules and regulations, such as open container laws, in areas such as Court Avenue to help facilitate the creation of an entertainment district. He believes a downtown entertainment district is crucial in order for new and upcoming downtown housing projects to succeed into the future.
Kiernan believes the commission, which he said could be approved as early as mid-July, would serve as a planning tool and a mechanism for bringing people together to strike a balance. He said the commission would provide the key component of communication, enabling members of the community to have a voice and a sense of ownership in initiatives such as an entertainment district.
“Young people are interested in policies regarding cultural entertainment,” he said. “We are third in the nation for voter participation and second for the number of young people who leave. So the young people who are here care and are invested in policies and care about the future of the city and state.”