Des Moines Trail Advocate Sees Bustling Green Spaces
Agribusinessman Robert Riley is working to develop Capital Crossroads’ vision
Robert G. Riley Jr. wants central Iowa to become the recreational trail capital of North America.
He sees the day when Des Moines’ 1,500-acre Water Works Park — an urban oasis bigger than Central Park in New York City — is far more than a pass-through bike ride, home to an occasional rock concert, and a place to see holiday lights.
And Riley, known to his acquaintances as “Bob,” hopes he’ll be able to help negotiate access to the few remaining private parcels along the Raccoon River, turning a string of high-profile parks running from West Des Moines to Principal Park into a greenbelt offering all kinds of fun.
Riley, 64, is co-chairman of the environmental section of Capital Crossroads, a broad-based visioning effort that has leaders of all walks trying to turn central Iowa into an even more attractive place to do business, play and live.
You might think he’s an avid environmentalist, and you’d be right. Riley has helped guide some of Iowa’s most profound environmental initiatives: He’s campaigned for funding long-term conservation efforts, he represented industry on a Des Moines city board tasked with reducing stench in the capital, and he has worked hard to preserve natural lands through the Nature Conservancy and other organizations.
But his day job might surprise: he’s an agribusiness giant in Des Moines.
The animal feed magnate is equally active in agribusiness and environmental protection, earning him puzzled glances from farmers as well as environmentalists.
“They both look at me like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” said Riley, who runs Feed Energy Co. and several spinoffs on Dean Avenue in Des Moines.
“I have been to agriculture meetings where I was the only one speaking of the environment,” Riley said. “There wasn’t much mention of soil and water, as if that was going to take care of itself.”
Though many Iowans consider farmers the original conservationists, pollution related to raising crops and growing livestock remains one of the state’s most pressing and controversial environmental issues.
Don’t try giving Riley the agriculture vs. environment speech. The two can — must — exist in a balanced way, he says.
“I think society has polarized those two issues,” he adds. “Air, water, soil, food and fuel, health and wellness. If you get one of those out of whack, nothing works.”
Some of his actions are just ingrained in his approach to life.
“I majored in philosophy so I could learn to think,” Riley said during an interview at one of his favorite leisure spots, the Wakonda Club, where he is a member and plays golf. He’s still miffed at the club for cutting down some old oak trees.
Plato and Socrates are personal favorites. “Logic is important,” said Riley.
He admits to working about 80 hours a week, but estimates up to half that time is volunteer service on civic groups and committees.
Riley sprints around town in his diesel-powered Mercedes. But most of his interests are simple: travel, walks in the woods, a good cigar and chatting with wife Kay, who teaches classes on spiritual growth through the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center. The couple live in a 3,100-square-foot home just south of Water Works Park, one of his favorite spots.
Riley comes off as mild-mannered, but some things clearly perturb him.
For example: The state cut the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ budget by more than a third in a decade, even as voters backed huge statewide environmental initiatives and Polk County residents voted overwhelmingly to launch local projects aimed at conservation and fighting pollution.
As a key member of the Capital Crossroads team, Riley’s role is to help make the group’s “think big” community development plans become reality. He is well-known in development circles at Iowa State University and Simpson College. And he has served on the boards of Des Moines Water Works, the Nature Conservancy, Whiterock Conservancy and the Iowa Environmental Council.
Iowa State University President Steven Leath noted Riley’s work with the Iowa Innovation Council, looking for new ways for Iowa to benefit from startups and expanding bedrock industries.
“Bob Riley is a successful Iowan that wants to give back and really cares about Iowa and her citizens,” said Leath, who is working with Riley and others on growing a high-tech commercial corridor through central Iowa. “He is always willing to use his considerable talent and experience to better the state.”
Mark Ackelson, president emeritus of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, said Riley’s inquisitive approach challenges others he works with to do more.
“He’s a mentor to many of us,” Ackelson said. “He’s a creative, analytical thinker. He’s very concerned and passionate about environment and economics and social infrastructure.”
Riley is a hearty supporter of Capital Crossroads efforts to set the tone for development in Des Moines within a 50-mile radius of the capital. And he’s all for the idea of capitalizing on the area’s strengths such as biotechnology, which he compares to composing a symphony overture one note at a time.
“We need to create a new Maytag or Pioneer, instead of bribing them to come here,” Riley said. He’d like to see a manufacturing institute here attain the same status that Mayo Clinic enjoys in medicine.
Capital Crossroads can help, having deployed a broad range of the area’s leaders in a push to improve the area socially, economically and physically, he added. “This is the single biggest opportunity we have,” he said.
But he also recognizes this challenge: “Iowans love progress and hate change.”