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The Elbert Files: Ames and the airport


I was disheartened to learn Ames will provide no money for a new passenger terminal at Des Moines International Airport.

Ames is where I was born and received all of my formal education. My parents are buried there. My daughter, who grew up in Des Moines, went to Iowa State University and decided to remain in Ames, even though she works in Des Moines. 

I always thought my hometown was the best part of Iowa, a warm nurturing place where  businesses and government were run by people who recognized their responsibilities and performed accordingly.

But not anymore. Not after I read a recent Des Moines Register article about airport financing. Among other things, it said: 

“Ames Mayor John Haila said the city has decided not to fund the new terminal at an airport that is 40 miles away, while the City Council works on funding a new indoor aquatic center, a community bicycle and pedestrian master plan and the Climate Action Plan.”

The Register story explained that the airport’s main terminal was built in 1948 and has been expanded many times but is now well past its intended life span. 

Airport officials have worked for more than a decade to line up funding to replace the terminal and make other overdue improvements. 

The financing is complicated. One piece that airport Executive Director Kevin Foley hopes to pull together involves commitments from the many cities and counties in Central Iowa that use the airport. 

According to the Register story, Foley has knocked on the doors of nearly 30 Central Iowa cities and counties and has received commitments of $28.7 million toward a goal of $34.3 million. 

Des Moines and Polk County are the two biggest contributors, with each kicking in $10 million. Pledges from other cities in the county total about $7.5 million.  

Foley also sought money from cities outside Polk County that benefit significantly from the airport, including Ames, Waukee and Newton. 

So far, Ames is the only significant city to say no.  

That is shameful. Ames-based Iowa State University attracts students, instructors and programs from all over the world, and it’s safe to say that outside of Des Moines, there is no city in Central Iowa that benefits as much from the airport. ISU even sponsors regular bus service between Ames and the Des Moines airport. 

Mayor Haila told the Register: “A lot of positive things are happening in the Ames community and we just didn’t feel comfortable at this time to consider something for the airport.”

I could remind the mayor that the “positive things” in Ames are directly or indirectly attributable to the fact that Ames is part of a larger community – the Greater Des Moines metropolitan area – which has had a hand in virtually all quality-of-life improvements that have occurred in Des Moines, Ankeny, Ames and every other Central Iowa community for the past two decades. 

But maybe it’s better if I just tell him my Vision Iowa story.

Twenty years ago, when Tom Vilsack was governor and my onetime boss Michael Gartner was chairman of Vision Iowa, the state issued $300 million in bonds to improve the quality of life throughout Iowa. 

Polk County was slated to receive $75 million and local officials wanted to use all of it to build the Iowa Events Center.

Gartner, who had learned from an earlier generation of leaders how to leverage resources, forced local officials to leverage the state money and multitask by requiring larger contributions for other projects that were also on the drawing boards.

As a result, the community was able to simultaneously raise tens of millions of new dollars to build a new library, a new science center, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, a higher education center in Gateway Park and the Iowa Events Center. 

By thinking strategically and leveraging resources, Gartner later said, “the things you thought might be doable in 30 years happened in 30 months.”  

Ames needs to do the same thing and leverage its assets to bring one more project – a new Des Moines airport terminal – into the fold. 

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