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The Elbert Files: What if?


What I am about to propose is not likely. In fact, it’s probably more likely that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will be the Republican candidate for president or that Democrats will make a clean sweep of the Iowa Statehouse next year.

But if you read on, I think you’ll admit that what I’m suggesting is an intriguing “what if.”

The idea came from Kent Zimmerman, a retired marketing guru. Zimmerman and I were having lunch recently at Wesley Acre’s new bistro cafe, which is adjacent to the 24 acres on Grand Avenue that, until recently, was the home of Des Moines University, Iowa’s osteopathic medical school.

DMU moved in June to a new campus in the southwest corner of West Des Moines, leaving everyone in our west-side neighborhood wondering what might replace it. 

Housing? Possible, but not likely anytime soon.

Des Moines University’s exit leaves a lot of apartment vacancies on Grand and Ingersoll avenues between 28th and 42nd streets. Many units, including several in luxury high-rises built in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, were rented to DMU’s doctors in training, who will now be living closer to the school’s new campus.

Corporate campus? Doubtful.

The site has made-to-order amenities, including athletic facilities, auditoriums and executive suites, but post-Covid work habits have weakened corporate demand for such amenities. Meanwhile, downsizing by insurers and banks has left a glut of similar empty spaces downtown and in the suburbs.

Retail? Shopping malls are passe, although the square footage of covered space might be attractive to an online retailer as a warehouse.

The hard truth is educational institutions are a special use of real estate that does not translate easily into other options.

Which brings me to Zimmerman’s idea.

The space is perfect, he said, for a nonprofit research institute focused on aging issues. Fully developed, he said, the space could become a mini version of a cross between the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. 

Both are huge institutions now. But each started small.

The CDC was created in 1946 to continue a wartime study of problems related to malaria. It was located in Atlanta because mosquito-borne malaria was endemic in the area. Also, Robert W. Woodrum, the chairman of Coca-Cola, lived in Atlanta, and had a personal interest in the problem. He provided the lead gift for the purchase of the 15 acres of land, which is the CDC’s headquarters today.

Rochester’s Mayo Clinic grew out of the 19th-century medical practice of Dr. William Mayo and his two sons, who were also medical doctors. In 1883, when a tornado ripped through Rochester, killing 39 and injuring 200, Mayo did such an impressive job organizing medical care for the injured that the Sisters of St. Francis raised money for a hospital in Rochester and put Mayo and his sons in charge of what became a teaching hospital and research facility.

Des Moines has a similar history of wealthy citizens stepping forward at key moments. John Ruan and Jim Cownie are two recent examples. Ruan and his son, John Ruan III, brought the World Food Prize and its Hall of Laureates to Des Moines. Cownie helped implement New York architect Mario Gandelsonas’ 1990 Des Moines Vision Plan with its Pappajohn Sculpture Park, funky East Village business district and Principal Riverwalk, all of which helped return housing and vibrancy to downtown. 

The metro area today has a core of activities focused on human health, anchored by the city’s hospitals and medical clinics and the state’s medical education network, which includes DMU, Drake University, Des Moines Area Community College, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University. We also have a significant private-sector focus on human health, which includes the Nelson family’s Kemin Industries, the Lauridsen family’s Proliant Health & Biologicals, and agribusiness leader Dennis Albaugh.

Creating a research institute aimed at aging issues would indeed be a heavy lift.

But you have to admit, it would be one heck of a “what if.”


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

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