Des Moines Is Becoming A Prime Millennial “Des”-tination

March 16, 2015 | By

Well beyond the Iowa cornfields there is a bustling metropolis that has become a surprising destination for Millennials and tech companies alike.

Des Moines, the biggest city in the Hawkeye state, is becoming an unlikely candidate as one of the up-and-coming cities in the country. There are jobs to be had and an affordable lifestyle to be enjoyed. Tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft have set up shop around the city and have helped redefine Des Moines as a major player in the “Silicon Prairie” of the Midwest.

The redevelopment of downtown Des Moines has increased the area’s population to 8,000 people — a considerable percentage of which are young people between the ages of 18 and 34. The city added 4,000 apartments to the downtown market in the last 15 years, 85 percent of which are rented. Even moving to the city these days is considered a more “hipster” act than living in Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, OR — at least, so says the National Journal.

To give the city even more “hipster” credibility, David Byrne, the musician and former frontman for the Talking Heads, applauded Des Moines for its “extensive network of bike paths” and for his belief that “this city was a better place to live than many others I’ve passed through.”

“We get these experiences that isn’t just people coming and saying how impressed they are, but people from all over the country saying ‘wow, we didn’t expect that Des Moines had this much to offer,’” says Jon Thompson, a tech entrepreneur and a board member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Des Moines.

If you redevelop downtown Des Moines, they will come

Venture to downtown Des Moines and you will see how much the city has changed in the past 10 years, says Thompson. Back then “people from rural areas would be afraid to come into downtown Des Moines because it was so sparse,” he says.

There’s the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park (which boasts sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Willem de Kooning), a new YMCA, a renovated Science Center of Iowa, and the recent completion of the Principal Riverwalk, all of which have helped spruce up downtown Des Moines.

The Nomade sculpture at night.

The Pappajohn Sculpture Park at night. (Phil Roeder)

These projects are not a recent phenomena, but rather the result of over two decades of urban planning between private and public partnerships, says Tim Leach, Senior Vice President of the Downtown Community Alliance in Des Moines. Included in these plans is “a significant emphasis on building the residential population — and that has been going very well,” says Leach.

Companies are setting up their own campuses in downtown Des Moines. Nationwide and Wellmark have campuses near the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, and Kum & Go, a convenience store chain, is moving its corporate headquarters from West Des Moines to downtown Des Moines. Doing this will create more “collisions” — “the random meeting of people”— between those working and living in the area, says Thompson.

To help accommodate the rise in popularity in living in downtown Des Moines, some of its iconic buildings have been transformed into “adaptive reuse.” The Des Moines Building, a 14-story art deco building built in the 1930s, was converted into rental apartments, and the Register and Tribune building (once the Des Moines Register’s newsroom) is in the process of being converted into 164 housing units. Both buildings offer a mix of income-restricted and market rate housing.

Young, Smart, and House-Hungry

While downtown living remains appealing, there are Millennials who want to try their hand at living in the suburbs, according to a recent survey from the National Association of Home Builders, which found that 23 percent of young people wanted to live in rural areas. Of those Millennials surveyed, 75 percent favored living in single-family homes over living in townhouses or condos.

“It surprises me a little to hear Millennials say ‘Yeah, we want to live in the ‘burbs,’” Brennan Buckley, senior vice president and general manager of Iowa Realty, told The Des Moines Register.  Homes there are affordable. The median price for a single-family home in Des Moines is $108,475, lower than the national average of $199,800, and the National Association of Realtors named Des Moines one of the best markets for Millennials to buy a home.

Whether there will be a mass exodus of Millennials leaving the city for the suburbs remains to be seen, says Leach.

“I think that those that get used to living downtown and understanding the amenities that are all around them will continue to stay here. I fully expect that there’s going to be that time when maybe a couple decides they want to have children and move to the single family dwelling or what not,” he says. “But I am thinking that once their kids grow up and go to college, mom and dad will move back downtown. “

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