• Managing editor, Business Record• Email: jimpollock@bpcdm.com• Phone: (515) 661-6085© 2012 Business Record
• Managing editor, Business Record
• Email: jimpollock@bpcdm.com
• Phone: (515) 661-6085
© 2012 Business Record

It took a few decades, but I finally caught on. For years, I marveled at the idea that major institutions of higher learning, backed by the caution and wisdom of state government, could be dumb enough to build on flood plains.

Not sheds for the rakes and shovels, but Xanadu-scale facilities such as Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and Hilton Coliseum in Ames. Eventually, the rivers would rise, millions of dollars’ worth of public possessions would be destroyed, and a bunch of Iowans would be left scratching their heads and saying: “Dagnabbit. Didn’t see that coming.”

Of course, that was before email connected the departments of hydrology and architecture. In the old days, the only time those professors communicated was at the annual salary day celebration, to witness the ritual of the upside-down shaking of the taxpayer. Maybe it wasn’t their fault, I thought.

But when I read an account of the plans for rebuilding the University of Iowa’s fine arts campus, the light bulb finally came on. Now, $405 million might sound like a big price to pay for forgetting that water seeks its own level, but examine the details. Along with flood insurance settlements and revenue bonds, the university expects to receive $267 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. You know, that free money that comes from a magic drawer in Washington, D.C.

Then think about the fantastic opportunity this represents for Iowa contractors and the jobs it will generate, and the concept becomes clear: Building on flood plains isn’t a boneheaded mistake; it’s an economic development plan.

Now I’m starting to regret that the Iowa State Capitol sits on such a high spot. Replacing an item like that could create several construction fortunes. I was told once that the Capitol rests on “terminal moraine,” meaning that it’s the southernmost spot of a glacier’s advance. So if it’s a jumbled pile of rocks under there, maybe one of them will work loose someday, and the whole thing will collapse in a blizzard of gold leaf and the clunking sounds of large egos.

But flooding, that’s much more reliable. Our cities were built on rivers in the 19th century for water, power and transportation reasons. They’re still on rivers today, but only because moving them would require more cardboard boxes than we could possibly scrounge.

As a result, filthy brown water regularly comes lapping at our finest doorways. But the results have been mixed.

Downtown Cedar Rapids was mainly restored rather than replaced, I believe, after the 2008 floods. Some economic activity, but not as much as one might hope for.

In 1993, we used to walk the deserted streets of downtown Des Moines with no boots during the emergency shutdown caused by the great flood. Downtown Des Moines is high enough to stay dry.

That’s why we’re stuck with so many buildings that could have benefited from a potent combination of the Des Moines River, dynamite and federal largesse.

Doing away with the old to make way for the new is a time-honored way to make progress. “Torching” has such a negative connotation, but when you look at downtown Chicago, you can see how beneficial a good round of destruction can be. If not for the Great Fire, city leaders would have been complacent. Instead of the John Hancock Building and the Willis Tower, the lakefront would be packed with four-story wood-frame buildings, leaving millions of skyline photographs unsnapped.

In the world of economics, it’s called “creative destruction,” which sounds much classier than “collecting on the insurance.” It refers to the never-ending replacement of products, processes and business models with new ones.

In the world of higher education, it could be called: “We’re getting a terrific new auditorium, because, don’t worry, somebody will pay for it. They always do.”