Building communities within communities seems to be all the rage in Greater Des Moines, with an early effort rapidly developing in Ankeny.


Prairie Trail, the 1,037-acre mixed-use development that spreads northwest of Oralabor Road and Ankeny Boulevard in the geographic center of the rapidly growing community, is beginning to look and feel like a bustling small town in an even busier big town.


Any doubt about interest in a development that would eventually sprout medical clinics, grocery stores, government buildings, banks, schools, restaurants and homes was erased in 2007, when the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines chose Prairie Trail as the location of its annual HomeShowExpo for the following year.


A drawing for lots was expected to attract the attention of 10 builders, at the most. Instead, 19 won the rights to build homes on 21 lots. Still, a drive through the area just three years ago left the occasional visitor feeling overwhelmed by open, wind-swept spaces pocked here and there by stone monument signs.


These days, neighborhoods are developed, restaurants are drawing crowds, Hy-Vee Inc. has opened a grocery store, and a commerce park is gaining tenants. As the catchphrase goes, you can work, live and play at Prairie Trail. If the mood strikes, you can also stay fit.


Businessman Dennis Albaugh, whose DRA Properties LC is the master developer for Prairie Trail, even offers scholarships for residents.


For three weekends beginning July 11, Prairie Trail will host another HomeShowExpo, this one in an area called the Estates. The eight houses on display will be added to a residential area that now includes more than 300 households, with an additional 100 lots in various stages of development.


Prairie Trail's origins can be traced to 2002, when the Iowa Legislature decided that the Iowa State University Research Farm in Ankeny was stunting the city's growth and approved the sale of the land.


The city of Ankeny scooped it up for $20 million and sold it for the same price to DRA Properties.   


Construction of streets and utilities got underway in 2006.


Six years later, in the shadow of the Great Recession, progress had stalled, but Ted Rapp, development director for DRA Properties, said at the time that any delays would be temporary. He had reason for optimism, with a retail center already occupied, another one leasing out at a rapid rate, and more homes under construction.


In a recent interview at the newly opened Main Street Cafe & Bakery, Rapp and Ashley Johnson, marketing director for DRA Properties, tick off a growing list of tenants, potential tenants and letters of intent that have been signed to gobble up vacant retail and office spaces.


"Once you get a building up, it makes a huge difference," Rapp said.


Johnson points out that Main Street Cafe & Bakery, which is owned and operated by John and Bene Zehr, is a mere 587 steps from the Estates development. She is illustrating the point that Prairie Trail might spread out over a thousand acres, but it is evolving as a walkable community.


Prairie Trail also is adding to economic growth in Ankeny, which, according to City Manager David Jones, is growing at the rate of a little more than 2,000 residents a year, and overall development is spreading to a variety of sectors of the local economy.


Prairie Trail has contributed about 8 percent of the total residential building permits issued in the city over the last 2½ years and 25 percent of the permits for new commercial construction, according to data compiled by Eric Jensen, director of the city's Planning and Building Department.


Of the nearly $89 million in permits for new commercial construction issued in the city over that time period, Prairie Trail projects have accounted for $23.5 million, or 26 percent. On the residential side, Prairie Trail projects have accounted for $58.4 million in construction, or a little more than 12 percent of a total $476 million for the city.


"The frenetic residential growth in Ankeny is exciting, but I am particularly pleased that development is now occurring across all sectors," Jones said. "We receive a lot of attention for the residential component, but we are seeing development in other areas as well."


Marcus Pitts, a senior vice president for Jones Lang LaSalle in Iowa, is the commercial real estate contact for Prairie Trail. He expects the area to draw a mix of retail tenants that want to expand operations from Ames, Iowa City, West Des Moines' Valley Junction and Des Moines' East Village.


"Ankeny is the logical next step for those retailers," he said.


Johnson said she hopes to draw businesses that have a "strong local presence."


Rapp expects the pace of growth to continue in Prairie Trail, with the build-out of the area close at hand.


"If it takes more than five years, I'll be surprised," he said.