Keeping the home fires burning
Forty Under 40 leaders weigh in on what it takes to make Greater Des Moines a place where young people will want to live, work and play
Five years ago, Denise Martin-Foley moved home, leaving her adopted hometown of Houston for a safer neighborhood in Des Moines in which to raise her children: Paris, 9; Allia, 7; and A.J., 5. Returning to Iowa was somewhat of a culture shock for her after having lived a dozen years in ethnically and racially diverse Houston. There, it was easy to find other African-Americans with whom to socialize. In Des Moines, the crowds looked a little whiter; the flat accents sounded a little more Midwestern.
Martin-Foley is one of the up-and-coming young leaders named to the Des Moines Business Record’s fourth annual Forty Under 40 class. Professionally and through their involvement in civic organizations, they’re working to make Greater Des Moines a place young Iowans won’t want to leave – and won’t have to, since their collective vision of the Des Moines of the future offers a wealth of high-paying, creative and challenging jobs.
Martin-Foley, a vice president and community development officer at Bankers Trust Co., thinks more networking opportunities should be extended to African-Americans and other minorities. “I found that Houston had more to offer as far as doing things that were culturally diverse,” she said. “We can always find diversity in some of the nightclubs, but the nightclub scene is not for everyone.”
Iowa’s Latino population is burgeoning, growing 169 percent from 1990 to 2000, and now accounts for about 2.8 percent of the state’s total population. Des Moines has a large Bosnian population, and the city is also home to hundreds of people who fled war-torn Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. Making new Iowa residents feel welcome is important as Greater Des Moines works to raise its stature as a vital, eclectic city, Martin-Foley said.
“A lot of times, for lack of a better word, we’re fearful of other ethnic groups because we haven’t come together and supported one another’s initiatives,” she said. “When we support the celebrations of our different ethnic backgrounds, we learn a lot about one another. We have to quit staying on our own side of the railroad tracks and start coming together.”
Fear of minority groups has accelerated since the September 2001 terrorist attacks. “The fear is there, and it’s forever changed a way of life and way of thinking, even the way we look at people who have been our friends and neighbors for 10 or 15 years,” Martin-Foley said. “The ones who genuinely and truly care about the community that they serve, it’s important to put these people in leadership positions.
The Iowa Asian Alliance, the Latino heritage festival and events in the African-American community are a good beginning, Martin-Foley said. “It has to start at the Statehouse and go to our personal houses, our homes,” she said. “It has to start at the top.”
Kyle Gamble has a lot of time to think about what makes a good city great in his job as vice president of CB Richard Ellis/Hubbell Commercial, the largest commercial brokerage company in Iowa. At 33, he’s not far removed from his college graduation day, when he made the decision on where to begin his professional career.
“A lot of people leave because they’re attracted to social center – the Broad Ripple in Indianapolis, the Plaza in Kansas City, Lincoln Park in Chicago, the Landing in St. Louis, the Flats in Cleveland,” he said. “That’s why Des Moines needs to develop a cultural center similar to those that can attract young folks out of college.
“If you can get that group close together and in close proximity to everyone, it will start to feed off each other and develop the synergy that more and more people will be attracted to,” he said. “Des Moines must be a top-of-mind choice for college graduates, and to do that, it must earn its reputation as a cultural and social center.”
For college graduates to begin their professional careers in the Des Moines area, tuition at the state’s three Regents institutions must be affordable, said Claire Celsi, a public relations account executive for Flynn Wright Inc. “College age is when they get the wanderlust to move away,” she said. “Raising tuition rates is going to drive people away, and young people will say, ‘If I have to pay this much, I might as well go to Arizona where it’s warm.'”
Celsi thinks state lawmakers should explore incentives that will keep Regents institution graduates in Iowa, including partial forgiveness of tuition for all professions, not just those experiencing worker shortages.
For Des Moines to become a mecca for young people, affordable downtown housing must be developed. Other initiatives currently under way – the Iowa Events Center projects, the Principal Riverwalk, the East and West Gateway projects, and the Court Avenue redevelopment – will go a long way toward attracting young people in the 22-25 age group, Gamble said.
“Housing is key to making our community attractive,” said Monica Seigel Fischer, public information officer for the Iowa Finance Authority. “Today’s workforce includes many creative types who want to live in unique spaces in close proximity to cultural opportunities and entertainment venues, with a diverse and active street life.”
Housing should include everything from affordable rental units to upscale condominiums to single-family homes in strong neighborhoods, she said. Also, she said, leaders should be open to and supportive of all kinds of possibilities to meet those housing needs.
Like Gamble and Fischer, attorney Cynthia Hurley said leaders already have taken steps that will give Des Moines more vitality in the future.
“We’re on the right track,” said Hurley, a shareholder in the Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor and Fairgrave law firm. “There’s an awful lot about Des Moines that is positive, but we need to spend more time educating people and talking about improving Des Moines.”
Hurley is a lifelong Des Moines native who left town briefly as she pursued her undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, but returned to attend Drake University Law School. She clerked for some local firms and found the Des Moines legal community to be a “very collegial, professional group of people to work with,” so she decided to begin her professional career here.
“It’s really important to retain the young people who grow up here,” Hurley said. “These people have a true appreciation for the quality of life, the education here and the opportunity here, perhaps more than people who have grown up in a larger community.
“And it’s important to keep those ‘under 40s,’ and to attract and retain those progressive, dynamic companies for them to work,” she said. Hurley thinks behind-the-scenes efforts such as those promoted by The Number 1 Question: Is It Good for the Kids? help make the city a place where young people will want to begin their families. That organization seeks to improve the quality of life for children in Greater Des Moines and encourages leaders to consider whether the decisions they are about to make are good for the city’s youngest citizens.
The Number 1 Question’s efforts “speak volumes about Des Moines,” Hurley said, and should be promoted as one of the city’s virtues. Of the people involved in the organization, she said she’s “not sure you’d find people of that caliber in a larger city.”
Brenda Cushing, a senior vice president and controller for AmerUs Group Co., said young people shouldn’t be left out of the process as leaders determine the best way to build a city they’ll want to call home. Involving them helps cement their commitment to the city and give them a degree of ownership, she said.
“Des Moines leaders should pursue ways to include young people in the community today in the planning and decision-making process around this issue,” Cushing said. “If I’m trying to tackle the issue of how to attract young people, I have to involve young people.”
Young people should seize leadership opportunities wherever they gather, Celsi said. “The only way you get to meet people is to get out and do something,” she said. “Volunteer and get involved, with work friends, at church or wherever, and you will make a network of friends. That’s what keeps people here – networking and activities they believe in.”
Bishop Drumm Retirement Center Administrator Matt Garcia said Des Moines leaders should capitalize on the city’s strengths to make it more attractive to young people. “I believe we should take advantage of our current strengths, the things our city and state do well,” Garcia said. “Two of the things I know Des Moines and Iowa are known for are quality health care and quality education.
“Focusing resources on becoming even better in these aspects will improve our high standard of living, which in turn should lead to increasing strength in many other facets of Iowa and its local economy.”
A challenge for 40 leaders
The Des Moines Business Record has just named its fourth annual Forty Under 40 class, a remarkable collection of up-and-coming leaders in Greater Des Moines under the age of 40. They’re a diverse group: men and women, Republicans and Democrats, black and white, and representing disparate professions.
Selected by judges from the 2002 class, these future leaders are challenged to begin working now to make the Des Moines metropolitan area a first-class city, just as past classes have remained in touch, both formally and informally.
The class will be honored March 26 at a reception beginning at 4:30 p.m. at the Polk County Convention Complex. Sponsors joining the Business Record in honoring this eclectic class of leaders are Principal Financial Group Inc., Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino, Betts Cadillac Lexus, the University of Iowa’s Henry B. Tippie School of Management and Heartland Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.