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Gateway West’s exiles


No doubt some people are already starting to forget what used to stand on the sites now occupied by the John and Mary Pappajohn Center for Higher Education, the Allied Insurance headquarters and the framework of the new library.

But the small businesses that were pushed out of the area are still around, still doing the same things in new locations. In general, the owners resented the process, as you might expect – but have found equal or greater success in their new locations. Here’s a look at how three companies are faring after making way for Gateway West, plus one that stood where the East Village is being transformed.


Owner Leonard Ainsworth and vice president Steven Strooh didn’t know the city planned to move Des Moines Blueprint to make way for Allied Insurance until it was mentioned in a newspaper article one day in March 2000. City officials showed up the same day and told Ainsworth and Strooh they had until July 30 to vacate the premises.

The company principals managed to get its deadline extended, but the ordeal of finding a new location and the financial outcome left some hard feelings. “We had to be disengaged from the business for eight months while we met with city officials, appraisers, lawyers, realty people, architects and construction people,” Strooh said. The city offered $1 million to buy the property, Des Moines Blueprint asked for $1.75 million, and they settled at $1.25 million; the city also provided $136,800 for relocation expenses.

“It was a few hundred thousand shy of what was needed,” Strooh said. “You get less than market value for your old building, but pay market value for your next building. You’re being made whole in your current situation, not your new one.”

When author Steven Greenhut heard the story, he included it in his book titled “Abuse of Power: How the Government Misuses Eminent Domain” as an example of how cities should not handle urban renewal.

But the renamed company is doing just fine in the building it purchased at 2507 Ingersoll Ave. The company has prospered because of the construction boom in Greater Des Moines.

“It’s hard for me to judge whether Gateway West is ultimately progress, but it has certainly improved the appearance of that area,” Strooh said. Ironically, he said, “We were involved in the documents for some of those buildings, so that helped us.”


The biggest problem with relocating a company, in Robert Wootten’s view, is the disruption in business. “We couldn’t just stop on Friday and move over the weekend,” he said.

After half a century downtown on Locust Street, Forman Ford had a year to find new quarters. The company moved late in 2003 to 601 S.W. 9th St.

“We wanted to stay sort of central; it’s good for our business,” Wootten said. “We could have moved to the suburbs, but we wanted to stay in Des Moines.”

During the relocation process, “ “The best thing [the city] did was the help from the relocation folks,” Wootten said. “If they ever give a mayor’s award for outstanding service, Sandy Mariucci [in the city’s real estate officie] ought to get it.”

All in all, “there were certain things I think the city did very well, but other things were lacking,” Wootten said. He was disappointed when the city declined to help with a build-out project to make Forman Ford’s new building suitable for its operations. “The city sometimes will move mountains for large businesses” but small businesses don’t get quite the same treatment, he notd. “We employ 28 people; which isn’t too many compared to Wells Fargo, but a lot of these people are well-compensated,” Wootten said. “They’re not sexy white collar jobs, but we pay a journeyman glazier $31 an hour.”

The city has provided $105,000 in relocation costs plus $30,000 in compensation for the company’s move to a building with a higher rental rate.

Like Beeline and Blue, Forman Ford has done well since moving out of Gateway West, and for the same reason. Glass work at major projects such as Jordan Creek town Center and the new Science Center of Iowa have been a boon for Wootten’s company.

“We were moved for a good reason,” he said, referring to the John and Mary Pappajohn Center for Higher Education that displaced Forman Ford. “If they hadn’t built the Pappajohn Center for 10 years, I probably wouldn’t be a real happy camper. But it’s a great addition, and it clearly has attracted people downtown. The city is bringing that part of downtown back to life one step at a time.”


Matt Leydens had been in the same spot on Locust Street for 33 years when he moved his business to 4333 Park Ave. in late 2003. At the age of 77, he says, “the city compared me to business owners who wanted to retire. Those people were satisfied” with the compensation they received.

Leydens wasn’t as happy. “It cost me $80,000 out of my own funds to move,” he claimed. After looking at 24 buildings in Des Moines and as far away as Jasper and Story County, Leydens bought an 11,000-square-foot warehouse and converted part of it for his operations, which include scuba diving equipment and fire extinguisher service.

The city paid him $247,500 for his property and $66,600 for relocation expenses. Like his former commercial neighbors, Leydens reported that his business has increased since the move.

However, Leydens isn’t as happy with the Pappajohn Center, the cause of his departure from downtown.

“They [city officials] wanted to beautify the area, which is fine,” he said. “But when I was told the property would be used for a learning center, I assumed it would be associated with the public schools. It was kind of deceiving.

“I’ll bet you 10 to 1 they’ll have to raise taxes to pay for all of that.”


Betts & Sons Hardware left the east side of downtown for family reasons, not because of pressure from the city. “The city would have taken [the property] eventually,” said owner Reed Betts, but if not for a lawsuit filed by his brother, “the store might still be sitting there today.”

Instead, it’s the construction site of the Soho Lofts, a three-story residential and retail building.

No matter what the final cause of the store’s relocation, Betts knew the era had ended for his store in a downtown location. His father ran the place from shortly after World War II until his death in 1978, and for much of that time, “It made money hand over fist,” Betts said.

But then a decline set in. “There were three hardware stores on the East Side at one time,” he said, “but over the last 20 years, retail has left downtown. My opinion is that they [city leaders] don’t want retail downtown.”

Betts looked on the north and south sides of Des Moines and finally bought a building at 1202 Army Post Road to house his renamed business, Betts Army Post Surplus.

“I’m glad we moved,” he said. “I wish we had moved several years earlier. People don’t like to go downtown.”

Eliminating hardware to focus on military surplus has helped operations. “We see new faces, and traffic has doubled at a minimum,” he said.

Betts said sales volume increased every month of 2004 until it dipped in September. “But October was the best month, $6,000 better than August.”

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