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Rising stars


The members of the 2005 “Forty Under 40” class represent the kind of young people Iowa wants to keep. However, it’s worth noting that some of them have brought ideas to the local mix that they gained by living elsewhere for a while – or growing up in another culture before ever seeing Iowa.

When Brendan Comito talks about the need to regionalize services, for example, he’s comparing what he sees in Central Iowa to his time living in Maryland. “Out there, the counties are huge, and each county had one police force, one library department, one sanitation department and so on. My taxes were actually lower there than here – and the services were better. They picked up my garbage twice a week.”

Comito worked in the family business, Capital City Fruit Inc., when he was growing up, then went off to Boston College after high school. From there, he went to Philadelphia to spend a year working on inner-city housing and anti-drug programs with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. He followed that with four years as a staff assistant to U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.

Only then did Comito decide to come back home. When he did, he saw things with a new perspective.

“There’s definitely more of a culture out East that’s willing to try something new, and if it fails not to make a big deal out of it,” he said. “Everybody here is so afraid of trying things. We always want the perfect solution for problems. We have to be willing to try ideas and then, if they don’t work, go back to the drawing board.”

In Comito’s opinion, the top priority for Central Iowa should be searching for ways to regionalize government and community operations. Despite last fall’s failure of the city/county merger proposal, leaders continue to look for ways to cooperate, and Comito sees that effort as essential.

“Public housing is a regional issue; lots of people in this five-county area need assistance with housing,” he said. “Why aren’t libraries, police departments, fire departments and sanitation handled regionally?

“We have a culture here of having a lot of governments, and people seem content with that. But I think it hurts us.”

Lisa Dreyer, a vice president in private client services at Wells Fargo Bank, agreed. “There have to be some efficiencies found in our local government situation,” she said. “I always compare government to business, and I see a lot of duplication of services. There’s got to be a way to coordinate programs and eliminate competition between governments.”

Another priority, Dreyer said, should be the issue of providing day care and preschool for all. “We really need to work on early childhood education,” she said. A mother of three, she said, “I’ve been able to put my kids in a good program and pay for it, but not everyone is so fortunate. As a working mom, that’s a critical issue to me.”

Max Cardenas grew up in Lima, Peru, so he brings a very different perspective to the perennial problem of attracting and retaining young professionals to Central Iowa. “I think Des Moines is starting to embrace the idea that it’s in everyone’s best interest to be a welcoming place” for minorities and immigrants.

Cardenas graduated from Grinnell College. “Of my graduating class, only a few actually stayed to live and work in Des Moines,” he said. “More than half of them were immigrants to this country.”

More people from other countries should be told that “there are opportunities here that young professionals couldn’t find anywhere else,” Cardenas said. Viewed from the local angle, “There’s a lot to gain for Des Moines if it really embraces the opportunity to retain and welcome multicultural immigrants from all over the world.”

Cardenas, who spent a year in New Jersey before enrolling at Grinnell, was impressed with the easy access to leadership that he found here. “In my own experience, I found access here that would have impossible to achieve in such a short time in a big city like Chicago or New York,” he said. “That’s something we can tell young professionals.”

Affordable downtown housing, a topic being addressed by several projects right now, is another key to making young professionals happy, Cardenas said.

Emily Abbas made the same point. “Downtown has such momentum right now, and we need to make downtown the premier place to live, work and play,” said Abbas, the corporate communications manager for GuideOne Insurance. “I think there are opportunities and places that will attract people of all ages, and it makes Des Moines seem more like a big city when we have cultural and other types of activities going on.”

Vitus Bering, an architect, said, “We need to maximize the opportunities available downtown in regards to housing and take advantage of the riverfront. There are some exciting things going on that will make downtown a more livable, attractive place.”

Another Forty Under 40 class member who came to Central Iowa from somewhere else, the Colorado native noted: “When I was getting out of grad school in Denver, the warehouse district was a place you didn’t go. By the time I left Denver, it was a place where you bought $400,000 lofts.”

More downtown development would address another problem that’s relatively new to this area – urban sprawl. A principal at SVPA Architects Inc., Bering said, “I live in West Des Moines, a lot of our projects are there, and we derive a lot of vitality from that growth, but it would be nice to make sure it’s not too sprawling. We don’t want to lose the special characteristics of urban space.”

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