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The Elbert Files: Springfield vs. Des Moines


I’ve spent a good part of my career covering Des Moines’ transformation from a down-in-the-mouth community in the early 1970s into a 21st-century model of urban design.

When I arrived here in 1975, there were gaping holes downtown where retail giants Montgomery Ward and Sears once stood while businessmen John Ruan and John Fitzgibbon pursued visions of tall buildings and skywalks.

More than four decades later, it’s fair to say things turned out much better than most of us could have imagined back then.

For me, it’s interesting to compare Des Moines with Springfield, Ill., another state capital I knew before I landed in Des Moines.

During the early 1970s, I worked as an Illinois government reporter for the Quad-City Times and occasionally made trips to Springfield.

When I last visited there in 1975, archeologists were just beginning to sift the soil around Abraham Lincoln’s home, turning up bits of glass and broken pottery. And while there were Lincoln references scattered around town, Abe was not the mega tourist attraction he is today with a state-of-the-art museum complete with holograms and a four-block neighborhood dedicated to his years in the city.

My wife and I visited Springfield recently with friends, giving me an opportunity to compare what’s there now with what I remembered from the 1970s.  

The Springfield I recalled was a gritty town filled with politicians on the make, who would file “fetcher” bills that they would kill once opposition lobbyists paid off the sponsors. One tourist attraction was the hotel where $750,000 in cash was found stuffed in shoe boxes in a room occupied by Secretary of State Paul Powell following his death in 1970.

The thing that most amazed me during our recent trip was how small Springfield feels, and is, compared with Des Moines.

Both cities are state capitals, chosen for their respective locations near the center of their states. But that’s where the similarities end.

The buzz of Illinois political activity I recalled during the 1970s was absent during our recent visit. And it wasn’t just because the Legislature was not in session. In recent years, several commentators have noted that Chicago has replaced Springfield as the functional seat of state government. “Everybody who is anybody in Illinois government has an office in Chicago,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Pat Gauen in a 2012 column.

Meanwhile, the political energy in Des Moines has increased steadily since the 1970s, driven in large part by Iowa’s quadrennial presidential caucuses.

And while Springfield today does not have a lot of private industry, the area around Des Moines has become a major hub for ag-technology, retail and finance.

Seed corn giant Corteva (formerly Pioneer Hi-Bred) is here, as are billionaire agronomist Harry Stine and ag chemical billionaire Dennis Albaugh. We also have Kemin Industries and an array of other businesses dedicated to the science of human and animal nutrition.

Central Iowa today is a convenience store mecca with three major chains headquartered here – Casey’s General Stores, Kum & Go, and Git N Go. And don’t forget Hy-Vee, one of the largest grocery chains in the country with 245 stores located across the Midwest.

But Des Moines’ real claim to fame is finance, specifically banking and insurance. The home mortgage operations of the nation’s largest bank, Wells Fargo, are headquartered here, as are the operations of a half dozen major insurers.

Iowa’s insurance industry is second only to Connecticut in terms of economic impact, and much of it ties back to the state’s rural roots when bank failures caused by the panic of 1873 led farmers to distrust Eastern money and create mutually owned insurance companies in virtually every Iowa county.

I’ll write more about the history of Iowa’s insurance industry in a future column.

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