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Wild Adventures Ahead Downtown?

Beth Dalbey

Des Moines Business Record Online

December 4, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Business Record Online, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Business Record Online.]

A couple of important “ifs” could soon come into play in downtown Des Moines, but it’s up to business leaders to decide whether they’ll become a reality.

If Bassett Associates, the Lima, Ohio, landscape architecture firm commissioned to study the Blank Park Zoo, determines that the decades-old infrastructure should be replaced, would it make sense to move the zoo closer to downtown? If the Iowa Environmental Project pulls out of Coralville, as is rumored could happen, does it make sense to revive businessman Ted Townsend’s original idea and take the best pieces of it and build an indoor rain forest downtown?

Either idea could have merit to enhance Des Moines and its downtown as a destination. But when the two are considered together and the “multiplier effect” of all the other “natural’ attractions in the core city are considered, the city could sizzle. The synergies are seemingly endless. The Science Center of Iowa springs to mind first, but to consider a tourism trifecta of sorts between the zoo, science center and rain forest doesn’t stretch the mind nearly far enough outside the box.

Tie-ins also exist with the planned Principal Riverwalk and the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers themselves, Water Works Park, Gray’s Lake, the new World Food Prize Foundation headquarters in the old library, the Des Moines Botanical Center and even the building that will replace the ailing Henry A. Wallace building, which houses state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Another of Townsend’s ideas, the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a remarkable world-class facility on the Southeast Side that is bringing some of the top primate researchers to Des Moines, could have some presence downtown as well.

Of course, the moment anyone says “indoor rain forest,” eyes start rolling or glazing over. At least, that used to be the case among people whose imaginations were so limited they saw such a project as infeasible anywhere but in the tropics. Cornwall, England, is far from tropical, too, but that city’s Eden Project has become one of the top British tourist attractions as well as an educational facility with a living curriculum. With the right kind of financial support, the Iowa Environmental Project could occupy the same position in the United States.

The Eden Project’s success has no doubt changed some minds. So has word that Dubuque, which used Vision Iowa money to build a Mississippi River museum and spruce up its riverfront in other ways, is ready to step in if Coralville officials bail out of the rain forest project. And Des Moines itself has changed since the project was rejected in the 1990s.

The Iowa Events Center, Science Center of Iowa and Pappajohn Higher Education Center projects have been completed; the new Public Library of Des Moines Central Branch will open next spring and work can begin to transform the old library into the World Food Prize Foundation headquarters. Vision Iowa money has transformed the city, and the timing may be right to take it to the next level as a destination.

It will take money. Oodles of it. And it will take commitment and faith from business leaders and the independently wealthy that for all that’s been accomplished, more is possible.