Citizens of Salem, Oregon, listen up! I have great news. Our city can become as cool as Des Moines, Iowa!
Ah, I sense your lack of enthusiasm. Des Moines? That's our urban model? I'll pass on that.
No, wait. Don't hang up on this blog post. You've got to read on.
Because today I came across a Politico piece that made me feel way better about Salem's chances of breaking out of its reputation as the drab something-or-other between vibrant Portland and Eugene.
I urge you to read "How America's Dullest City Got Cool" in its entirety.
But if the lengthy article's 5,800 words are too much for you, I've selected a mere 1,700 words from the piece that offer up the gist of how Des Moines transformed itself into a happening city.
After each of these excerpts, I couldn't resist adding some commentary of my own in blue italics relating to how the passage applies to Salem.
First, a few facts: Des Moines, like Salem, is the capital of its state. It's population is 209,000, not far off from Salem's 160,000. In both cities, a river flows through it. Sure, there also are many differences between Des Moines and Salem.
As you'll read below, though, the pre-cool Des Moines bears a lot of resemblance to current-day Salem. Des Moines residents came together to transform their town. So can we Salemians (I hate the term Salemites).
How America's Dullest City Got Cool
by Colin Woodard
(excerpts, with commentary)
The capital of Iowa has long had a reputation as one of the least hip, least interesting and least dynamic cities in the Western world, a dull insurance town set amid the unending corn fields of flyover country, a place Minneapolis looks down on and the young and ambitious flee as soon as they graduate.
Likewise, Salem gets looked down on by Portland. But we're surrounded by a variety of farm fields, including hip vineyards, so that's a plus for us.
But unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, over the past 15 years Des Moines has transformed into one of the richest, most vibrant, and, yes, hip cities in the country, where the local arts scene, entrepreneurial startups and established corporate employers are all thriving. Its downtown — previously desolate after 5 p.m. — has come alive, with 10,000 new residents and a bevy of nationally recognized restaurants.
A lively downtown -- sweet! Salem is a long ways from getting 10,000 more people living downtown, but progress in that direction is already happening.
No longer just a drab dateline from the first battleground state, this metropolis is riding high in the polls. In recent years Des Moines has been named the nation’s richest (by U.S. News) and economically strongest city (Policom), its best for young professionals (Forbes), families (Kiplinger), home renters (Time), businesses and careers (Forbes). It has the highest community pride in the nation, according to a Gallup poll last year, and in October topped a Bloomberg analysis of which cities in the United States were doing the best at attracting millennials to buy housing.
Our new City Manager, Steve Powers, said when he arrived, "I'm here to help Salem become the best city in the United States." Yes! Let's surpass Des Moines.
Cities don’t, as a rule, change their identities. They might accentuate a characteristic they already possess, but plow horses don’t become thoroughbreds. So how did Des Moines pull off the urban equivalent of a Triple Crown win?
Call it radical cooperation. Des Moines tapped the latent power of the heartland — a cultural ethos of working together and good manners that’s helped account for Iowa’s stability — and harnessed it to an ambitious plan to jump-start downtown by building cultural amenities, attracting creative class types and retaining big employers. Des Moines’ civic leaders realized the city wasn’t going to transform itself without a clear long-term vision, so in an almost hyper-Iowan way they did something almost unheard of. They took it upon themselves to bring in an outside visionary and then tied together the destinies of the various projects he envisioned, forging an almost ego-less, private-sector-driven renaissance that has continued to flower over the past decade.
Ah, vision. So important. That's why I enjoy being a member of the Salem Community Vision steering committee. This group is a step in the Vision Direction. Salem just needs all sorts of people and organizations to radically cooperate like Des Moines did.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the city tried to turn things around by installing suburban conveniences, including an enclosed system of skywalks, allowing people to get from building to building and through new indoor shopping malls without putting on their coats, which only furthered the abandonment of the sidewalks and the storefronts.
Interesting. Salem did the same thing downtown. Skybridges -- they make some sense, but they do detract from the vitality of our Historic District by hiding people away rather than getting them outside.
Graham had a colleague to recommend, an innovative urban thinker looking for a Midwestern city to experiment on. Bucksbaum was thrilled. Soon that visionary, Mario Gandelsonas, found himself in a car hurtling up Fleur Drive from the Des Moines International Airport, headed for downtown.
He was horrified at what he saw.
First impressions of Salem from the freeway (we don't have a "real" airport) also are pretty ghastly. Before I moved here from Portland in 1977, I had a negative view of Salem, based on what I'd seen on brief visits to the State Fair and such.
Gandelsonas’ urban planning philosophy was simple: don’t treat a city like a map that needs to be redrawn and corrected, but as a living organism with its own purpose, personality and innate characteristics. Successful interventions are ones that enhance and enable the organism’s socio-economic metabolism by removing blockages or creating new centers of potential growth. Instead of producing a total and comprehensive master plan for a city, Gandelsonas sought to identify a series of “moments,” civic projects that would enhance its fabric and unleash its potential. Or so the theory went.
Moments. Civic projects to unleash potential. Sign me up! There's plenty of good ideas floating around Salem. We just need to get them anchored to achievable reality.
Downtown itself “looked like science fiction,” he recalls. “It was mid-morning and there were no people on the streets. At lunchtime, the streets were still empty, but for about an hour the skywalks were full of people. At 4:30 they started filling up again as everyone rushed to the nearest parking structure and then for half an hour there was a full-on traffic jam as 50,000 people tried to get to West Des Moines. Then the city was empty again. For me this was the perfect picture of a place that was totally dysfunctional.”
Reminds me of a Twitter tweet about Salem from the early days of our town's Salemia craze: "Visitors mistakenly believe zombie apocalypse has hit the town because shops close and streets empty before dark."
So one day in the spring of 1990, Cownie, and a handful of city leaders gathered at the Embassy Club atop the 36-story Ruan Center, then the city’s tallest building, as Gandelsonas cast his vision on the urban panorama below. He began to tick off his ideas.
The central riverfront should be transformed into a usable public space connecting downtown with the east side beyond. The latter, a dilapidated neighborhood between the river and the gold-domed State Capitol, should evolve into a “Red Brick City” of storefronts and apartments. Between the river and the Ruan building, he envisioned a revitalization of the Court Avenue entertainment district, with more housing rising near the railroad tracks just to its south. To the west, a lakefront on the road from the airport would be made into a park and the car dealerships and dilapidated one-story buildings that had first greeted him would be demolished to make way for an expansive city park.
Wow. Way to go, Des Moines. But, hey, Salem also has a lot of "red bricks" in our downtown Historic District. We've got the same potential as Des Moines. Just need to get the potential ball rolling.
Lots of cities come up with grand plans. Very few actually complete them. Almost none do so with virtually no opposition and, in the end, widespread approval. Des Moines did.
The idea had broad support and little opposition, in part because fewer than 1,000 people lived downtown and the envisioned changes would displace none of them. But the task ahead was daunting: get a new, 2,000-unit downtown neighborhood built; expand the entertainment district; transform the riverfront and Gray’s Lake into top-notch recreational areas; build a civic center, science center and all the rest. That’s when the state of Iowa stepped in, offering to provide funding, but with conditions that would force the business and philanthropic communities well out of their comfort zone.
Nothing wrong with being pushed out of a comfort zone. Salem is too comfortable with itself. We need more people pushing for change, dreaming the possible dream.
Meanwhile, the metro region’s chambers of commerce, downtown development groups, and major landholder alliances merged into a single superentity, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which became an essential vehicle for region-wide cooperation. “Business leaders were tired of going to multiple meetings of people trying to do the same thing,” recalls Eugene Meyer, who was mayor of West Des Moines throughout the 2000s and is now president of the Partnership.
In the early 2000s, as construction cranes sprouted around downtown Des Moines, Richard Florida’s “creative class” theories were taking the urban planning world by storm. Florida, an urban theorist who now heads the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, argued that cities prosper when they are attractive to the knowledge workers, intellectuals and artists that power the post-industrial economy. Build amenities, the argument went, and they will come, and their presence will naturally attract the industries that need them. Des Moines was in effect running a large-scale experiment for his theories.
During the first decade of the new century, Des Moines’ net employment grew by 7 percent and the overall population by 18 percent. Many of the newcomers were young, educated, and, yes, creative types drawn by the changing downtown landscape. “People started wanting to come downtown because there were more and more entertainment options coming up, and that spurred them to think, let’s not drive out to the suburbs afterward and then drive back for work,” says developer Gerry Neugent, now CEO of Knapp Properties, who had a front-row seat. “What if we lived here? That spurred housing and then they just started feeding off each other.”
Creative class types aren't exactly flocking to Salem. Portland and Eugene get them. Salem, not nearly so much. This shows that becoming a cooler town is an economic development strategy. Are you listening, Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Peterson, and Salem city councilors?Over the next four years, the entire area transformed into a residential neighborhood of new lofts and repurposed commercial buildings. The population of downtown doubled, then doubled again. Today, it has an estimated 15,000 residents, up from 1,000 in the 1990s, and 2,000 more units under construction.
Make downtown cool, and they will come. Such is the lesson of Des Moines. Jobs follow people, more than the other way around. Yet Salem is stuck in an outmoded emphasis on jobs, jobs, jobs, rather than quality of life, quality of life, quality of life.
The business community loved the Social Club, a place they could take potential recruits to help convince them that moving to Iowa wasn’t like being sent to Siberia. (Baby boomers are retiring, so companies need to attract lots of new talent to replace them.)
I've heard stories about efforts to entice attractive businesses to Salem that fail when the owner/CEO takes a tour of downtown. Imagine if the Historic District elicited cries of "Yes!" rather than "Ho-hum."
That said, Des Moines has a long way to go before anyone will call it the next Austin, Texas. Most people coming here are still Iowans or those married to them. Visitors checking into downtown hotels at 9 p.m. on a Sunday are still told their only dinner option is to order in from the Dominos at 4th and Grand. The state of public transportation is such that you can’t really live in the city without a car, a burden many millennials avoid. An airport terminal expansion has been talked about for years, but the $420 million effort remains in the planning stages. The new arena and convention center were supposed to attract private capital to build an associated convention hotel, but instead the city and county had to step in to secure financing for the $100 million project. (“If the market was going to support this hotel, they would have stepped up to build it,” says Draper, a prominent critic of the new plan.)
But out-of-towners are taking notice, says Republican political consultant Tim Albrecht, who confers with a great many when the presidential caucuses roll around, including the political reporters deployed by the national news organizations. “I used to say to them that Des Moines isn’t so bad and that I think they’d like it,” he says. “This time around I told them the same and they would respond: ‘We know, we asked to come here.’ That’s a big difference.”
Hmmmm. Salem also suffers from a lack of public transportation, which discourages Creative Class types from moving here. Still, I felt really good coming to the end of the Politico piece about Des Moines.
We can vitalize and up-cool Salem in much the same way. It just takes genuine commitment, collaboration, and cooperation between various groups in this town -- business leaders, elected officials, civic activists, non-profit organizations, and many others.