DES MOINES, Iowa—This is too nice a place to spawn a war cry. But if the city had one, it would be the sentiment heard across a downtown populated by baristas, tech start-up founders, musicians, and nonprofit professionals alike: “It’s Des Moines against the world.”
Young people here know what you think of this city. It doesn’t need repeating. But ambitious minds are in the process of building a new Des Moines, a tech hub in Silicon Prairie, an artistic center in the Heartland, a destination for people who want to create something meaningful outside of the limits imposed by an oversaturated city like Chicago or New York.
That’s exactly what former Brooklynite Zachary Mannheimer sought seven years ago. Mannheimer, 36, had launched restaurants and theater projects in New York, but he wanted to find a city where he could tap local artistic talent and revitalize a stagnant urban community. He visited 22 cities in eight weeks during the summer of 2007, and fell for this Midwestern capital, where he founded the Des Moines Social Club, a nonprofit center for the arts. The Social Club is now lodged in an old firehouse built in 1937, and has a theater, classrooms, bars, art gallery, and adjoining restaurant—and it hosts events every night of the week. An average of 20,000 visitors come through every month, perhaps for a WWE-style wrestling match or an aerial arts class or a punk show.
Mannheimer created something that would have taken the rest his life and $300 million to complete if he’d stayed in New York. It took him seven years and $12 million. He also left his crappy, expensive apartment in Brooklyn for comparatively lavish digs in Des Moines. Now, he wants people living in New York or Chicago or Washington to think about doing the same.
“How much are you working every day? How much are you being paid? How much is your cost of living?” Mannheimer asks. “What if I told you we have per capita the same amount of cultural amenities here that you do in New York? Get over your, ‘How do we even pronounce Des Moines?’ and ‘Where is it?’ and ‘Why should I even care about it?’ Get over it, and come out here and visit.”
Besides, he says, “In the world of hipsters, is there anything more ironic than coming to live in Des Moines, as opposed to living in Brooklyn?”
On paper, Des Moines has the assets to back up Mannheimer’s pitch: Cost of living is six percentage points below the national average, median salary is $51,200, job growth is 2.9 percent, there is one company with 500 or more employees for every 612 people, and millennials are pouring into Des Moines at a higher rate than they are nationally. Forbes even lists it as the best city for young professionals.
It was a normal night at the Social Club when we visited. The art gallery was open, just next to Capes Kafe coffee shop and comic-book store; upstairs, nine people in a comic-book drawing class watched an eccentric, gray-haired instructor in skinny black jeans and thick-rimmed glasses draw a cartoon about a retired Elvis impersonator named “Sid.” Out on the purposely graffitied porch with rope-spool tables, dozens of members of the local Young Nonprofit Professionals Network chapter met to network, drink, and take professional head shots.
Looking out over the courtyard marked by an old telephone tower and murals, Brianne Sanchez and Danny Heggen, both 29, describe the chapter they founded in 2013 for monthly coffee meetings. It has turned into a group of more than 550 members that successfully draws millennials downtown to connect and help each other out. It’s a quintessentially Midwestern mix of selflessness in a deep pool of ambition and drive.
“We always joke that Des Moines is a big small town,” says Heggen, a project manager for a firm that transforms old art deco buildings into new apartments. “But really, Des Moines is a large living room. There’s this homey feel. What I most want is everybody around me to be successful. And I believe that everyone wants that for me, as well.”
Sanchez, too, moved to Des Moines “to start building things, to do something bigger than yourself.” Her hope in starting a chapter, she says, was that maybe more young professionals would move to Des Moines. Or to borrow a line from a movie based in Iowa: If you build it, they will come.
Talking Heads frontman and Des Moines fan David Byrne touched on that idea at the Social Club’s launch party in this same courtyard, where he pondered why a music scene or an artistic scene or a theater scene develops in any city. “What makes it happen?” he asked the crowd of 500. “It’s hard to say. There’s no guarantees, but it is possible and it’s certainly not going to happen unless there are places like this. And, sad for me to say, it’s not going to happen in Manhattan anymore, which means it’s up to you guys.”
Geoff Wood thinks this model could work for start-ups too. He founded Gravitate, 6,000 square feet of office space in the heart of downtown for emerging tech start-ups. Of the 12 floors in this building on 6th and Mulberry, five house start-ups. Wood currently leases space for 40 entrepreneurs, and could take 60 more looking to take advantage of the relaxed accommodations with artsy furniture, hardwood floors, and ample desks. Those who don’t go in for traditional office set-ups can try the standing desks paired with Indo Boards.
Iowa has the homegrown talent. Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest, was raised in Des Moines. Marc Andreessen, a leading venture capitalist, is from Cedar Falls. Tom Preston-Werner, the cofounder of GitHub, grew up in Dubuque. The first digital computer was even invented at Iowa State University. Wood wants to give people like this an opportunity to find a home in Silicon Prairie before they decide to move to Silicon Valley. “I want them to always feel like if they choose to, they can come back or they could invest here,” Wood says. “We choose to be here.”
Technology leveled the playing field with start-ups. Geography doesn’t matter anymore. They read the same blogs, use the same machines, and are connected to the same Internet as everybody else in the industry. The only difference is that in Des Moines, they do it for much less, explains Andrew Kirpalani, a product manager for Bunchball, a gamification company with a satellite office in Gravitate.
“For a company in California, we are a cheaper resource,” says Kirpalani, standing next to a unicycle, as his teammates blast music behind him. “It’s easier to find office space here, you don’t have to pay as much, and our salaries—while very competitive and even premium to Iowa—are not necessarily as expensive as they might have to be in California. We, as developers, end up in a situation where we get whatever we want because it’s cheap here.”
These start-ups are creating a community, growing an ecosystem of entrepreneurs in the middle of Iowa, a state that provides support for companies through different funds sponsored by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, and offers relatively low tax rates and business costs. Dwolla, an online payment support company that’s gained national attention in recent years, started and is still based in Des Moines. Rüster Sports is another small business based here that’s turning heads nationally.
The most aerodynamic racing bicycle in the world is made in a business park five blocks from downtown Des Moines at Rüster. The bike runs $6,000 at the basic level, or $10,000 with all components. Ethan Davidson, the 24-year-old chief operating officer, wants to build a culture here that challenges the old way of thinking—that manufacturing world-class products should happen elsewhere. “Why not here?” says Davidson, walking through an office with desks welded and bikes crafted in the same space. “Why not manufacture carbon fiber composite products right here in Des Moines? It is happening here. It’s real.”
And that energy goes beyond start-ups. Amedeo Rossi uses entrepreneurship to boost the music scene in Des Moines as the program manager of the 80/35 Music Festival. Named after the two intersecting interstates that go through Des Moines, the summer festival features several local bands and bigger acts like the Avett Brothers, Wu Tang Clan, and Cake. It started in 2008 using funds from the city’s department of parks and recreation and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. For Rossi, there’s a bigger purpose to the festival.
“If you improve the music scene, you get more bands to stop here,” he says. “Hopefully it will improve the local scene as well, and some of these people will break out a little bit. It’s helped raise the level of music.”
This could only happen because of the infrastructure investment in Des Moines, Rossi says. Earlier this fall, work began on a $49 million real estate development project in the East Village, a trendy neighborhood downtown that was once just home to an old Chevrolet shop, a few eateries, and some taverns that couldn’t even generously be called dive bars. Combined with a $40 million sculpture garden, a 16,000-seat arena for concerts and sports, 700 miles of connected trails and bikeways, an amphitheater along the riverfront, and countless new music venues, restaurants, and bars that neighbor thriving insurance and financial companies headquartered here, the downtown area is pleasingly aesthetic, livable, and big enough to host large events like the Farmers Market, the Arts Festival, and 80/35.
There’s a T-shirt shop and community staple in East Village called Raygun. It’s cushioned between foodie restaurants and basement bars, and provides ironic wear for the otherwise earnest customers who frequent the neighborhood. One of their most popular shirt designs is a perfect expression of the ambition and slight exasperation of the locals here: “Des Moines, Iowa: Let us exceed your already low expectations.”
National Journal recently visited Des Moines to see how an increasingly diverse population—a majority of public-school students are now minorities—and booming economic development have changed this once-sleepy town. This article is part of a Next America series about the reality of 21st-century Iowa.