The Business Record asked readers in a online survey in mid-April: “What would you like to see next in downtown Des Moines?”

Top responses were retail outlets, a grocery store, more housing and more attractions.

So we asked some people likely to know what they thought would be the next big thing in downtown Des Moines.

So far, revitalizing downtown has been about the next big project, said Glenn Lyons, president and CEO of the Downtown Community Alliance (DCA). Things such as building Wells Fargo Arena and revamping Walnut Street have grabbed headlines. Big projects and a top-down approach have been led by the government, business leaders or organizations such as the DCA.

Now, it’s getting to the point where “it’s not about chasing projects,” Lyons said. “It’s about things happening at a more holistic level.” It’s about neighborhoods developing, residents moving downtown, more restaurants and retail stores opening, and all of it starting to connect. It’s a bottom-up approach.

It will get more to the point where people like Lyons get out of the way and let things happen on their own, he said. There won’t be as many headlines about $10 million projects but more short news items about a new restaurant opening downtown.

“It’s just when it gets to the point that there’s enough energy and momentum and desire and use... All of a sudden, it’s multidimensional, and self-reinforcing,” Lyons said.

Grocery store

Lyons said he could see one of three options: A store like Gateway Market opens in the downtown core, offering a lot of prepared foods; an indoor farmers market opens; or a traditional grocery store chain, such as Hy-Vee Inc., opens a small store.

“Any or all of those things could happen,” Lyons said, but he anticipates a “dance” for the next five or so years as potential grocers wonder whether they could sustain a downtown store.

Jeff Bruning, co-owner of Full Court Press, which runs a number of bars and restaurants around Court Avenue, is skeptical that a downtown grocery store could last. His company formerly ran Riverbend Trading Co., a grocery store located in the building that currently houses Sbrocco. Riverbend closed in 2008.

“People said they wanted it, and I can say we were a little disappointed because people said they wanted it,” Bruning said. “We thought it would work.”

Could a future store work? He’s not sure. Lyons may be more optimistic, but he’s not sure, either.

“The question is, who and what and do they know what they’re doing,” he said. “We’ve got some people who know what they’re doing, I’m just not sure they’re ready to take the risk.”

More Retail

In our unscientific online survey in April, more than half of the 80 respondents said they’d like to see some sort of retail.

However, retail wasn’t the top priority for any of the leaders the Business Record interviewed.

With the Walnut Street revitalization, Lyons expects there will be retail options, and potentially even chain stores, that are geared toward people working downtown. He thinks chain stores would have to come as a group to ensure viability. A more likely scenario is that street-level restaurants and cafes will be the first drawing point to Walnut Street.

Hubbell Realty Co. President and CEO Rick Tollakson said a larger downtown residential population would attract more retailers, but he doesn’t think people are drawn to move downtown because of retail. He also thinks it will be hard to change the habit of downtown workers, who traditionally haven’t supported the retail businesses that Hubbell has been a part of.

The East Village is where people see a large potential for retail, as there’s already a solid base and the potential for more as the economy recovers. Zachary Mannheimer, executive director of the Des Moines Social Club, says he’d like to see some options that lure suburbanites downtown, something like an Apple Store, which he says would help the surrounding local businesses as well.


Tollakson may have raised some eyebrows at a Business Record Commercial Real Estate Trends & Issues forum recently when he said he could see 30,000 people living downtown some day. That’s triple the current population.

Lyons said that the area is adding 400 to 500 residential units a year. To get to 30,000, Tollakson points out, it would take about a 12 percent yearly growth rate over the next 10 years.

There are a number of areas in and around downtown that provide good opportunities for expanded housing, including Riverpoint and Gray’s Landing south of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, East Village, the downtown core and Western Gateway.

It will take a wide variety of housing options and price points. That includes low-income housing tax-credit apartments, market rate apartments, townhouses and condominiums at various price points, says Tollakson.

“The opportunity is there and I believe it will happen,” Tollakson said.


It’s no surprise that Bruning, a restaurant and bar owner, points out the positive effects big events have on business.

“It used to be where you want to do an event, and you’d find a spot on the calendar where there’s nothing happening. It’s gotten to the point where you just throw that idea out the window,” he said, noting there are so many events downtown now. “In some sense, we’re starting to have that city flavor where you can pick and choose what you want to do on a weekend because there are several events you can do.”

It’s also important to get a convention hotel to put Des Moines on the same level as Kansas City, Omaha or Minneapolis, Lyons said. Convention-goers come to town and spend money. Plus, a lot of them wouldn’t have any experience with Des Moines if not for the convention.

“It would make a world of difference,” he said.


“We’ve got 40 great restaurants. We need 40 more,” Mannheimer said.

Lyons and Tollakson both second that notion; the more good restaurants, the more people are going to come downtown to eat.

“People are used to getting off work and going home,” Tollakson said. “What we have to do is figure out how we can get them to (eat downtown) Monday through Friday, not just Friday night, Saturday and Saturday night. ... If you’ve got a good dining experience, people will drive back downtown for it.”

Lyons envisions an atmosphere on Walnut Street with outdoor street-level cafes, restaurants and bars, which would look “cool” and inviting for people walking by.