The Elbert Files: Perseverance pays off
Efforts to create whitewater rafting, zip lining and other amusements along the downtown riverfront suffered a setback recently when the sole bid for an initial phase of work was $73 million, nearly double the estimated cost of $39 million.
As a result, supporters who have compiled private and public commitments for 60% of the expected cost of $125 million said they will reconfigure the leading components of the 86-part plan before seeking new bids.
The setback, although disappointing, was not unexpected; not when a worldwide pandemic and global political unrest have disrupted supply chains and juggled labor markets as never before.
The simple truth is anything worth doing often takes longer and costs more than we expect.
A corollary is that attractions worth waiting for rarely turn out exactly as planned.
Des Moines today contains an ever-growing list of eye-popping attractions, all of which overcame significant problems at some point.
In fact, the only major effort that failed during the five decades I’ve lived here was the 1990s rain forest that businessman Ted Townsend wanted to build.
The reason it flopped was not for lack of public funds. Townsend had lined up a mega federal grant with help from Sen. Chuck Grassley. The rain forest failed to launch because private-sector leaders never bought into the concept.
And for that we should all be grateful, because the Des Moines Vision Plan, which those local leaders did support, produced a 21st-century Des Moines that is today widely acclaimed as one of the most remarkable midsized cities in the country.
Like the water trails project, none of the significant development that has occurred in the past 30 years has been easy.
The original plans for the $217 million Iowa Events Center with its signature Wells Fargo Arena were markedly different from the final product, which debuted more than a year behind schedule.
The first thing cut was an adjoining hotel, which wasn’t added back until more than a decade after the Events Center opened. When the center did open in 2005, its roof lacked the copper crown originally envisioned and not all of the seats included cup holders.
While the Events Center was built mostly with public funds, private contributions paid for most of the Principal River Walk, which was completed in 2013 with the opening of the Women of Achievement Bridge above the Center Street dam.
That was more than a decade after Barry Griswell, chief executive of Principal Financial Group, announced that the giant insurance company would spend up to $15 million to create the river walk. As work progressed, the scope expanded with the final cost topping $70 million.
Then there’s Western Gateway Park, the project from that era that was most like the water trails effort.
Creating the park was complicated. It required the acquisition of six contiguous blocks of low-rise downtown buildings and leveling them before creating a new landscape and erecting two new public buildings, a $32 million library designed by British architect David Chipperfield and the $9 Pappajohn Higher Education Center.
The real “wow” factor came after the park had opened, when John and Mary Pappajohn donated their eclectic yard sculpture collection. To date, the Pappajohns have provided 28 world-class pieces of art worth tens of millions of dollars.
I say the water trails are like the park because both projects evolved from a series of well-planned community brainstorming sessions that produced plans, which skeptics doubted.
The key to achieving goals for both is the type of persistent community support that comes from the involvement of key public- and private-sector leaders.
There is still much left to do for the water trails projects, including some serious heavy lifting, but at this point I believe the private- and public-sector leaders involved are more than up to the task at hand.
They will make changes and do what is needed to make the water trails a reality, just like they did for the Events Center, Principal Riverwalk and Western Gateway Park.