Curtis Brown says when making the decision to leave his posts as assistant city manager and director of economic development for the City of Ankeny to accept the newly-created position of director of economic development for the City of Urbandale earlier this spring, it boiled down to two key factors: the city’s leadership and the opportunity for continuing development.
“The leadership in Urbandale, including the city council and the mayor, is respected across the metro, as is the city itself. The opportunity to work with them was compelling,” says Brown, who began his new job in April.
Equally compelling, Brown says, is Urbandale’s strong economy, low unemployment, excellent schools, variety of existing residential and commercial development and the opportunity to continue to expand its development, especially in the area northwest of the interstate.
“There are over 1,000 acres in that area waiting to be developed,” he says. “We also have some existing inventory for commercial and residential that is very appealing, making it a bright spot in the metro for growth.”
Brown says there is more room for development in Urbandale than most people realize, and one of the opportunities for his newly created department is to raise the profile of Urbandale not only in central Iowa, but the Midwest.
“The creation of this position is really a sign that the city’s leadership wants to make a strong statement regarding development, career opportunities and investment in Urbandale,” he says. “As A.J. Johnson, our city manager, describes it, ‘it’s an evolution and we’re serious about it.’ It’s an exciting time.”
One project that has generated buzz throughout the community is the construction of Life Time Fitness, which boasts 171,317 square feet and is expected open next spring. It will include indoor tennis courts, an indoor pool, weight room and restaurant.
The wellness center will occupy 18 of the 40 acres of land previously owned by Living History Farms just west of the interstate and north of Hickman Road and is part of a landscaped commercial campus that city leaders hope will attract other businesses. Already, plans are underway for Dunkin’ Donuts and Medicap Pharmacy to build there, say city officials.
To accommodate the anticipated increase in traffic to the area, the city reportedly is planning to spend $1 million to widen Hickman Road to add new turn lanes into the complex this fall.
For Paul Dekker, the city’s longtime director of community development, the arrival of Life Time Fitness is the culmination of years of negotiations between its owners and the city.
“Life Time Fitness almost constructed a new facility in Urbandale back in 2007, on the site where the new Bob Brown Chevrolet dealership is now located. The site was totally prepared, their building plans had been reviewed and a footing and foundation permit was ready to be issued, when Life Time withdrew the project due to the failing economy,” says Dekker, who says that the value of the project is conservatively estimated at $27 million excluding an outdoor pool. “It’s great to see them return to another site in Urbandale, even bigger and better than had been planned in 2007, and to be under construction. They will be one of, if not the, premier fitness center in the metro and should be a great amenity for the residents of Urbandale.”
Life Time Fitness is one of several commercial building projects to take shape in Urbandale of late. Others projects in recent years include the newly-constructed Hy-Vee Store, Van Meter Inc. branch for electrical and mechanical products, CarMax Used Car Superstore and the Paragon East Warehouse. Brown says the continued development of large and small commercial buildings is a good sign.
“Last year was Urbandale’s second highest commercial valuation all time,” he says. “There is confidence in businesses willing to invest in Urbandale. They know that this is a solid place to invest and that we have a growing, well-educated workforce with a great work ethic.”
Brown says plans are also underway to improve existing areas, including adding infrastructure near 100th Street and Interstates 80/35, including the area near the corporate offices of Delta Dental of Iowa in 2016. The city is also continuing to work with the Iowa Department of Transportation to reconfigure a section along Iowa Highway 141 to include a flyover ramp over the interchange there and along 141 in hopes of improving the flow of traffic in the next few years.
“A lot of economic development is getting ready for opportunities,” says Brown. “You need to be ready when businesses are ready because we field a steady stream of inquiries.”
Brown says his office welcomes a variety of commercial development, but it covets companies whose primary focus is to create higher paying jobs.
“That’s an important part of a community’s economy,” he says. “That said, all of the retail development is important to the community, too. You want to offer citizens dining and shopping options because given the choice, people like to work and shop close to home.”
City officials say housing is another important part of a community’s economic health, and they cite developments like Bent Creek Meadows and Waterford Landing as examples. In 2012, Urbandale experienced its seventh-highest residential valuation, and city officials expect this year to be a banner year, too.
Dekker says residential building permits have been issued or recently applied for 211 single-family homes to date. If the number of permits to be issued the remainder of the year holds true to the law of averages, he says the 2013 total should exceed 300 single-family homes, making it one of the biggest years on record for such construction.
“The housing recovery has been steadily on the upswing since the 2008 bottom, when 97 single family homes were permitted,” says Dekker, noting that other than the “bubble years” of 2001 to 2005, the only other year the city topped 300 new single-family homes in a year was 1991. “That points out how extraordinary this year is, to be just the sixth year that Urbandale will have had more than 300 new single-family homes constructed in a single year.”
City leaders not only continue to work with developers and other businesses, but they also continue to engage residents to provide perspectives and insights to shape the city’s economic development strategies. On Aug. 6, the city council unanimously approved Mayor Bob Andeweg’s appointments to the newly-formed economic development advisory board.
The board is built around 10 key perspectives. Appointees live and/or work in Urbandale. They will serve through June 30, 2014, and include Brian Mook of Continental Western Group (financial services/insurance), Curt Leaverton of Pivot Works (manufacturing/bioscience), Lisa Hubbard of YRC Freight (logistics), Wallas Wiggins of John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group (information technology/business services), Sheila Robinson of Des Moines Public Schools (education/workforce development), Dave Hansen of Signature Real Estate Services (real estate development), Adam Kaduce of R&R Realty Marketing Group (real estate brokerage), Emily Naylor of Shive Hattery (young professional), Kimberly Baeth of Golden Openings (retail/hospitality/service) and John Irving of Baker Electric (citizen stakeholder).
“Increasing investment and career opportunities in the community are top priorities for the city,” says Andeweg. “The accomplished professionals that we appointed will bring tremendous value to our efforts.”
Irving, the director of business development for Baker Electrical, says the board is well rounded, experienced and will work together as a team.
“Our goal is to help lure the right businesses to Urbandale,” he says.
In January, Irving will also become president of the Urbandale Chamber of Commerce, for which he has served for several years on its economic development subcommittees.
“The chamber is another asset when it comes to luring businesses of all sizes,” he says. “It’s also one of the strongest chambers in the metro with more than 660 members.”
Tiffany Menke, executive director of the chamber, says the non-profit organization helps to facilitate economic development by hosting monthly events with business leaders and city officials, educating workers about the state program Skilled Iowa and providing or assisting with online services such as UniquelyUrbandale.com, which is being updated.
“We try to connect people using a variety of tools,” she says. “We have a large network of people we know. We want to do business with companies that have synergy in which we can make connections.”
The chamber is also partnering with the Ankeny Chamber and Greater Des Moines Partnership to organize a trip to China on Oct. 13 – 21.
“It’s an introduction to Chinese culture for anyone who might want to do business in China. I went last year with other chamber directors and learned how trade with China works,” Menke says. “It’s a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to experience the culture and learn about it from the business side.”
Brown says he is encouraged by how entities such as the chamber, private sector and city in Urbandale work together to improve the community’s economic development.
“One of the joys of public service is to help support the vision of the mayor and the city council and to work with several people to do so,” he says. “We want Urbandale to have more job opportunities and for businesses to invest here. That’s important because it increases the quality of life for the 41,000 people who choose to live here and be part of a strong economy.”