"Behind Des Moines' Secret": A Special Report

By Jeff Neumeyer

February 24, 2014 Updated Feb 25, 2014 at 10:33 AM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (21Alive) --- If Fort Wayne wants a role model in building a stronger economy, the search could start 500 miles due west in Central Iowa.

In a special report, entitled, “Behind Des Moines' Secret", we hit the road for a first hand look at why that community is on a job creation winning streak.

Des Moines, Iowa's capital city, is home to about a half million people and a fairly impressive skyline.

It's not, however, a glamour capital.

We asked some folks in Fort Wayne what Des Moines brings to their mind.

“Rendering factories, and butcher shops," said Michael Thurman.

“Corn. Definitely not the economy," said Mary Gilbert with a chuckle.

Yet, first impressions often don't tell the real story.

Des Moines recently earned the designation of “America’s Most Productive City".

Forbes Magazine put it at the top of the list as “Best Places for Business and Careers", and then last month, NBC's Today Show dubbed it the U.S.A.'s wealthiest city.

Even Fort Wayne officials are picking it up on the radar.

Fort Wayne's business leaders wanted to know how our economy measured up in a study of 100 Midwestern cities roughly our size.

We finished in the middle of the pack.

The shining star was Des Moines.

Some top notch companies have put down roots there.

Wells Fargo has added 4,000 jobs in Des Moines over the past 10 years.

Microsoft and Facebook are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build or expand state-of-the-art data centers.

Favorable tax policies dating back to the 1980's are a big reason why the Iowa capital has the highest concentration of financial services employment anywhere in the country.

Fort Wayne's powerhouse insurance company, Lincoln National Corporation, 15 years ago moved its headquarters to Philadelphia.

Principal Financial, with a 135-year history in Des Moines, is not leaving; rather it's putting $250-million into a downtown expansion.

Jay Byers heads an organization that works to keep the Des Moines economy running on all cylinders.

“We’ve really, I think, done a great job as a region putting ourselves on the global economic development map, in ways that the rest of the world has not looked at Des Moines in the past," said Byers, who is CEO of The Greater Des Moines Partnership.

“They know that they can find the workforce that they need, you can't go anywhere, everywhere, and get that," said Matt Anderson, an assistant city manager in Des Moines.

Anderson says insurance and ag-bio businesses like his city, because there is an educated workforce, trained to excel in those types of jobs.

But it's been a slow climb to the top of the mountain.

Anderson says leaders worked hard to clean up a rundown entertainment district between downtown and the State Capitol.

Now, high-end restaurants and nightclubs in that district are attracting customers, and young people working downtown are clamoring to live in apartments, condos and lofts being built 500 units at a time.

It's a strategy Fort Wayne is trying to replicate, but here, the train is just leaving the station.

The head of Principal Financial, that bankrolled a multi-million dollar river trail enhancement, says a low cost of living is critical.

" If you have a young person we're recruiting from Chicago, to be able to live in a loft downtown, with a great view of the river, is much more affordable here than it would be on the coast, than it would be in a big city," said Mary O’Keefe, a senior Vice President with Principal Financial Group.

Anderson says one of Des Moines' biggest assets right now is positive momentum.

“There are periods in the economy, where you are fighting and scrapping for every economic development project you can get, and there are other periods when things are going just right, when all the stars align, when projects come to you. Right now, we're in that nice little sweet spot in Des Moines," Anderson said.

Not everybody thinks Des Moines is the perfect role model for economic revitalization.

We spoke to Morton Marcus, the retired head of the Indiana University Business Research Center.

He pulled together statistics, suggesting that Des Moines' wages are not growing as fast as outlying parts of Iowa, and that Indianapolis has higher wages than Des Moines.

But overall, it finished first in the study generated by the IPFW Community Research Institute.

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