You could fill the pages of this magazine with a list of awards, ratings and accolades that West Des Moines has earned over the years for its business environment, which is closely tied to its abundance of excellent schools, housing and other amenities that enhance the overall quality of life that its residents enjoy. But more important is the fact that it refuses to rest on its laurels.
That much we were reminded of after interviewing members of the city’s economic development team, which plans the city’s future and manages its growth. They say West Des Moines is positioned perfectly for continued growth in industry, technology, life sciences, financial services, sustainable development, leadership, entrepreneurialism and many other facets of economic development.
Among the major projects underway in West Des Moines is the redevelopment of the Val-Gate District between First and Fourth streets along Grand Avenue and the 22nd Street corridor; the expansion of the Wells Fargo campus and the completion of the second phase of the Microsoft data center; new residential and commercial development; and the implementation of programs such as the West Des Moines Business Incubator and DMACC’s Information Technology Pathways.
Improvements between First and Fourth streets along Grand Avenue in the Val-Gate District continue as city officials and businesses work together to revitalize the area originally developed during the 1950s. Storm water improvements have helped spur changes and redevelopment there calls for greater pedestrian travel, outdoor use areas, parking and landscaping, city officials say.
A new Casey’s General Store recently opened and is a cornerstone of the ongoing changes with a retro feel in the Val-Gate District. West Bank, a longtime fixture in the area, also moved into a new building next door, as did Taco John’s across the street. Another longtime business, True Value Hardware, also renovated its building.
“I’m proud of that stretch of Grand Avenue. It’s development is a success,” says Christopher Shires, development manager for the City of West Des Moines. “The businesses there worked with us on our vision for the area. Both sides wanted to work together on a plan to stay current with the modifications to Grand Avenue. It’s done a lot for the area, and I’m optimistic that over time we will see other businesses in that area. It’s a good solid neighborhood with good traffic and a place to invest.”
Nearby, on Eighth Street, similar changes are taking place with new construction and the addition of tenants like Dunkin’ Donuts and a Kum & Go convenience store and gas station.
“That area is dressed up and keeps spurring success as people are also investing in a new office building near the old Jimmy’s American Cafe,” says Shires.
Further west on 22nd Street, construction is underway on the construction of a new McDonald’s restaurant where the former Taco Bell building stood. Next to that, Hooters restaurant closed its doors in July, and its owners reportedly are exploring the option of replacing it with a family style restaurant. Across the street, a new, larger format QuickTrip convenience store opened last summer.
“That’s another area that will see significant improvements,” says Shires.
City officials say that improvements will also be made in the next few years to areas between 22nd and 35th streets, including the Watson Center, Governor’s Square and Clocktower Square.
“The city thinks it is important to redevelop those older areas,” says Clyde Evans, the city’s director of community and economic development. “It is important from an economic development standpoint.”
Though much of the Polk County side of West Des Moines has been developed during the last two decades, there remains room for new construction there — both commercial and residential — as well as in the neighboring Dallas County portion of the city, officials say. Proof of that is in the numbers.
For the month of July 2013, 138 permits were issued with a total valuation of $92.8 million as compared to July 2012 when 83 permits were issued with a total valuation of $9.9 million. The year-to-date valuation is $170 million compared to $160 million overall last year.
On the residential side, 132 permits for single-family units have been issued through Aug. 1. City officials say that number is on pace to break last year’s total of 181 permits and is consistent with the number of permits for such dwellings to be built since 2000, which have ranged from 269 in 2000 to 120 in 2006.
Many of the single-family permits have been issued for areas in Dallas County. In 2011, for instance, 134 permits were issued compared to 16 in Polk County.
Figures paint a similar picture regarding multi-family dwellings two years ago, too. In Dallas County, 151 permits were issued compared to six in Polk County. In 2012, 600 permits for multi-family units were issued in Dallas County, and as of Aug. 1, another 243 were granted.
Last year in Dallas County, residential building permit valuations reached $138 million, easily surpassing the $48 million totals for 2011. This year, as of Aug. 1, $76 million in residential building permit valuations have been tallied.
“Residential numbers have been steady over the years. The majority of the latest growth has been in Dallas County because that’s where the land is,” says Shires. “We’re also seeing more interest and growth in the area south of the river in Warren and Polk counties. We’ll also see more growth along the Highway 5 corridor.”
Commercial and industrial construction is also up this year ($336,444 as of Aug. 1) compared to last year ($165,265). Office space can account for spikes in such valuations, officials say, noting the construction of corporate offices such as Wells Fargo and Aviva USA.
“We’ve been very busy building office parks and campuses and retail centers the last 10 years,” says Shires. “West Des Moines is still positioned to be a key player in the region because it has infrastructure and land in the right places for all levels of development. We’ve got it all.”
The latest addition of a new 265,000-square-foot building and parking structure will increase the total square footage to nearly 1.2 million at the 160-acre Wells Fargo campus in West Des Moines and is valued at $100 million. The building will provide room for about 1,800 team members, giving the company room to relocate current employees to the facility from leased spaces and allow room for growth, officials say. Wells Fargo has more than 13,500 employees in the metro and is one of the state’s largest employers.
“It’s a good example of how development keeps jobs in the metro area,” says Evans.
In June, Microsoft announced a third expansion to its data center in West Des Moines. City officials say the “Project Mountain” will support products like Xbox Live and Office 365 and will create 29 new jobs. The project expansion, which begins this fall, will house servers, networking equipment and office space need to operate Microsoft’s cloud services and is expected to be completed by the end of 2015.
“Microsoft has made a significant investment, and we have a good rapport with them,” says Evans. “They know we can perform when it comes to things like infrastructure. We’ve shown that we can move faster than their consultants.”
Welcoming new businesses
One of the greatest indicators of West Des Moines’ healthy economic development is the growing list of its top employers including Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Aviva USA, Wells Fargo Consumer Credit Solutions, West Des Moines Community Schools, FBL Financial Group Inc., Hy-Vee Inc., ADP National Service Center, LetLife, Guide One Insurance and Sammons Annuity Group. They are among the more than 2,400 businesses in West Des Moines that employ approximately 58,000 workers.
Still, city officials say, there is room for more employers, which is why they have implemented the West Des Moines Business Incubator program and partnered with DMACC to promote its Information Technology Pathways initiative.
Founded in 2009, the Business Incubator is designed to foster an environment of entrepreneurial activity and to assist development and growth of small businesses within West Des Moines. National statistics show that businesses that transition to, and graduate from, an incubator have a higher success rate than those that do not. Some of the program’s amenities include low rental rates, 100 Mbps Internet connection and access to other participating companies, academics and industry experts.
“One of the reasons we started it was because national statistics show that 70 to 80 percent of job growth is with companies with less than 200 employees,” says Evans. “Companies that graduate tend to locate close to where they started.”
With the city’s growing information technology sector positioned for expansion and the digitalization of so many industries, the city is encouraging high school students to consider DMACC’s IT Pathways program, which allows students to explore careers in the broad IT field that keeps technology up and running while they’re still in high school. The free courses at DMACC are incorporated into their high school schedules, and students gain college credits that can be transferred to four-year colleges.
“We’re dealing with quite a few tech companies looking for workers,” says Evans. “It starts this fall, and it allows students to make $40,000 to $80,000 per year, and in some cases the companies they work for will pay for them to complete their four-year degrees. We simply need more IT workers in the pipeline because every company uses some form of technology.”