Posted November 6, 2010 by the Business Record

The time to think about the future is now.

That’s the approach the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines and the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) are taking.

The groups are taking on a pair of regional plans, one that will focus on ideas and one that will focus on infrastructure.

Together they hope to lay a framework for economic development and other planning in Greater Des Moines for the short term and long term.

“What I think regional planning will do for us is really force us to look at the best efficiency for our region, and be able to plan projects, plan services, plan amenities in the most efficient way possible,” said Erin Olson-Douglas, an urban designer and community developer with the city of Des Moines.

The MPO recently received a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to implement a 40-year sustainable plan, which Olson-Douglas called “pretty unique.”

Less unique, but no less vital, is the Community Foundation and Partnership’s visioning planning process, dubbed Capital Crossroads. This is the third such planning effort in the last 12 years that the organizations have spearheaded. Not coincidentally, those past planning initiatives have been
instrumental to economic development in Greater Des Moines over that time period, Olson-Douglas said.

“It’s been hugely important to the progress we’ve made here,” she said. “I think those conversations have put ideas forward that would not have happened without those big, broad efforts.”

Building on past plans

The Community Foundation and Partnership are teaming up for their third visioning effort since 1998. The first one, said Community Foundation President J. Barry Griswell, focused on bricks-and-mortar ideas, and the second one in 2003 focused on quality-of-life issues.

This one’s focus is tough to define at this point, Griswell said. The goal isn’t to have predetermined topics going into the planning, but instead letting broad ideas turn into more defined objectives.

“That’s what happened in the first two visions: A lot of input on the front end, and then we were able to really come out with some products that made sense,” said Martha Willits, president and CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

Tri-chairs of the project are Angela Connolly, Polk County supervisor; Cara Heiden, co-president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage; and Griswell. They will collaborate with a steering committee made up of representatives from eight counties. The steering committee’s work will be facilitated by Market Street Services Inc., an economic development consulting firm from Atlanta.

Market Street will help gather data from 30 focus groups, 50 interviews and an online survey between now and Jan. 1. A number of groups around the community will help fund the cost of business with Market Street, which is still being negotiated.

Together the steering committee and Market Street will take a broad range of ideas and try to narrow them down to six or seven initiatives.

“I think about it as a giant project in consensus building,” Griswell said. “You get all this input, experts looking at quantitative data, economic development data. … Then you start getting the softer data – what are people saying, what do you want, what do you hear? And then somehow you get some groups together to start talking through, and with most projects it morphs and things come to the top.”

The formal plan is scheduled to be released next May. The next step is for area businesses and leaders to take charge of concepts and convert them into ideas.

Past concepts included utilizing the riverfront on the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, regionalizing local services and building a public events center. Out of those ideas came the Principal Riverwalk, the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority and the Iowa Events Center, among other things.

“The nice part about all of this is we have never just produced a study that went on a shelf and got dusty,” Willits said. “We’ve produced concepts and ideas, and they found homes. And almost in all cases, those homes have come in public and private endeavors, so the resources could flow with it.”

This time is a little different because more people and ideas will be involved, Griswell said, and a larger area will be covered. The plan will mainly focus on the metro area, but also include input from communities and institutions within a 50-mile radius of the state Capitol, such as Ames and Iowa State University, Pella and Newton.

Beyond that, because of what the last two visioning efforts have accomplished, “this one even has broader opportunity than the last two,” Willits said.

“The first one we talked about bricks and mortar. The second one really was quality of life,” she said. “This one, because we think it may be a maturity of all of that, we haven’t tried to contain much at all. I think it has a really good opportunity to be quite new.”

Looking out – way out

What will the infrastructure of Greater Des Moines look like in 2050?

That’s the question the MPO is trying to answer. And that’s the challenge MPO associate transportation planner Bethany Wilcoxon will address as she and her partners try to come up with a long-term plan addressing a laundry list of items, including housing, transportation, land use, economic development, the environment and accessibility.

“The growth and the development in this area is rather disjointed,” Wilcoxon said. “This plan will provide a comprehensive framework for future development. And it’ll make sure all those components are considered simultaneously rather than in isolation, as they are now.”

The MPO was one of 45 recipients of a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program award through HUD. Now the real work begins, Wilcoxon said.

The plan itself is roughly scheduled to be completed in three years, and will be split up into three phases.

The first phase will involve data collection. Software will help participants choose among alternative scenarios by providing graphic depictions of those choices, Wilcoxon said.

The second phase will involve visioning, which will build off the alternative scenarios model to try to gain an idea of what the public really wants. The third phase will be developing the plan itself.

“At this point, we don’t know what that will be exactly,” Wilcoxon said. “It still depends on what people are looking at, what they want.”

In the process, Wilcoxon said, the MPO would provide several opportunities for public participation and education, including a series of speakers and a public input series. Also important in the process, she said, was finding ways to get political leaders in Des Moines and surrounding communities to adopt policies based on MPO principles to have a way to implement the plan.

The $2.2 million grant from HUD will be partially used to acquire the software for the alternative scenarios model. Other uses, Wilcoxon said, include providing funding to the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority to help with long-range transit planning, and the regional visioning plan led by the Partnership and Community Foundation.

The planning process will also likely change exactly what the MPO’s function is. Right now, the organization exists to help plan regional transportation.

“You can’t really separate the transportation from land use or housing, or socioeconomic factors,” Wilcoxon said.

Working together

It’s unclear exactly how the two projects will coincide, Griswell said, but it is clear that they will overlap.

“I see our group as being the visioning, strategic, strategy setting,” he said. “I see their focus as more a process of how you bring about metropolitan planning, how you put in process around infrastructure… They are tied together.”

Griswell and Willits will both be part of the MPO planning process as well, and Connolly, a tri-chair on the visioning effort, also chairs the MPO task force.

“We’ve made sure from the very beginning that we were well-coordinated, that we could provide visioning to that,” Willits said.