DES MOINES, Iowa — The signs are everywhere: A city that’s spent the last two decades getting…newer.
“I think anybody that was here 20 years ago knows how much it’s changed,” says Connie Boesen of the Des Moines City Council. “It’s night and day difference.”
From the way we travel to the places we rest, to the spaces in which we work, and play, and shop, and stay … so much has been added or improved in that time.
“East Village!” Boesen points out. “I mean 20 years ago this really wasn’t around.”
If there’s one place to begin discussing the changes Des Moines has undergone on Frank Cownie’s mayoral watch, the East Village might be it. Talk of its renovation began while he was still on the planning and zoning committee in the 1990s.
“We thought ‘isn’t there something cool that could happen down here?’” Cownie remembers, “because way back in the 1800s, this was really a cool area.”
While renovated areas like the East Village and the Western Gateway have helped downtown Des Moines recapture much of the retail and entertainment business lost to the suburbs last century, Cownie thinks the real difference has been new housing.
“20 years ago what was it? 1,500 1,700 people living downtown?” he says. “What do we have now? 13,000? Some have said 17,000?”
Residential development in and around downtown has been steady this century — involving both new structures and the renovation of old ones.
“There’s just been a tremendous amount accomplished,” says Josh Mandelbaum. “It’s really set us up for the future.”
There has been a long list of leaders who’ve worked with Cownie in the last 20 years, with a wide range of ages and political leanings.
“Tom Vlassis, Archie Brooks, Mike McPherson, Christine Hensley, Chris Coleman…” Cownie lists. “We all had different opinions, but we found ways to work together, and to move this city forward.”
And there were times when the momentum stopped, when Cownie was questioned, and when the job seemed like one no one would want.
“It’s one that people like to criticize but not give a lot of credit to,” says Ward 4 councilman, Joe Gatto. “It’s a hard, hard job — especially when you’re working another full-time job and spending 20 years in office. He deserves a lot of credit.”
Whether Cownie deserves the credit for Des Moines’ past 20 years is debatable. Whether that time has been a good one for Des Moines, is probably not.