By Kathy A. Bolten | Original Article
June 21, 2019

The Des Moines City Council on Monday is expected to vote on creating a nonprofit entity to oversee a stepped-up effort to revitalize neighborhoods, a departure from how similar programs have been run in the past.
The nonprofit corporation, called Invest DSM, would develop revitalization programs, distribute money to the programs and manage other related activities, according to a city document. The corporation would not replace neighborhood programs the city already has in place or the city’s Community Development department, city officials said.

Last summer, the city released a study that showed 22 of Des Moines’ 52 neighborhoods had a higher percentage of “slipping or bad” houses than “good or excellent” ones. In addition, housing values in 30 neighborhoods failed to keep pace with inflation.

The city’s elected officials have made reinvesting in neighborhoods a priority and pledged to use money raised from the 1-cent local option sales tax to help pay for the effort. (Des Moines voters in March approved the tax that goes into effect July 1.)

In September, the council selected four pilot areas – Beaverdale, Drake, Oak Park/Highland Park and McKinley School/Columbus Park – in which to begin the concentrated effort of rejuvenating neighborhoods.

Invest DSM is the next step in the process, said Chris Johansen, Des Moines’ community development director.

“This is a shift in our program from how we’ve done things in the past,” he said.

In previous years, the city has tackled neighborhood revitalization by itself. It also relied heavily on federal dollars to pay for various neighborhood improvements; the federal programs had strict guidelines on how the money could be spent and who would receive it, Johansen said.

Invest DSM would be overseen by a board that would establish guidelines for programs and distribution of money targeted at making improvements to houses.

Initially the board would include three Des Moines council members and three Polk County supervisors. This week the supervisors appointed Angela Connolly, Tom Hockensmith and Matt McCoy to the nonprofit’s board.

“The purpose of including City and County elected officials on the Board is to protect the public trust and leverage private involvement and investment,” according to a city document. The board will appoint up to five other members from the private sector to also serve on the board.

Among the board’s responsibilities is deciding what revitalization programs to launch in each of the four neighborhoods, called Special Investment Districts, and developing guidelines for those programs.

Des Moines expects to designate $2.5 million from local option sales tax revenues collected in the coming fiscal year to the program and another $5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020. Polk County officials have discussed contributing $2.5 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“Elected leadership from both the city and county believe that Des Moines’ neighborhoods are important, and that they have some challenges because they are older neighborhoods,” said Amber Lynch, neighborhood planner. “So [the city and county have] come together and, and decided to dedicate resources to that end.”

Less than 10% of the money would be used to pay salaries and benefits for staff, who would be hired to work specifically on the revitalization effort, city officials said. The rest of the money would be used for revitalization efforts.

Lynch emphasized that the money targeted at the four pilot neighborhoods is coming from new resources.

“Nothing is being taken away from the other neighborhoods,” she said. Passage of the 1-cent sales tax allows Des Moines “to expand and increase services to all neighborhoods.”

Improving Des Moines’ neighborhoods will make the entire region more attractive to people who may be considering relocating to the area, Lynch said.

“As much as people may want an urban lifestyle, they don’t always feel like they have the house that they want in the city,” she said. “This makes us a much more attractive place for those who might want to relocate here and offers our citizens a much better quality of life.”