Welcome back to Des Moines

All cities evolve over the course of 16 years, but the developments in central Iowa since 1997 — the last time the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa spent the night in town — are especially pronounced.

This is “Dead Moines” no more. Public and private entities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on housing, park land, event venues and commercial space. Once quiet and overlooked areas have become destinations for residents, revelers and big events.

Downtown is a place to have a drink, see a show, take a walk through public art spaces, see a sporting event.

And the change is far from finished. Work is in motion for an overhaul of Nollen Plaza, across from the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, as well as a new YMCA. And the opening of a new hub for the regional transit system freed up Walnut Street for still- forming plans to turn a rundown bus corridor into another pedestrian-friendly commercial and entertainment zone.

Here are a few more of the changes out-of-towners might notice this week:

The Principal Riverwalk was completed earlier this year, just in time for its many features to serve as a main artery for Des Moines’ RAGBRAI party. Among the riverwalk’s highlights are the Center Street bridge, which while under construction back in 2009 served as the backdrop for a daring rescue of a boater who cascaded over the dam below — and led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo taken by The Des Moines Register’s Mary Chind (now Mary Willie). The Brenton Skating Plaza is another popular feature that keeps the riverwalk hopping during the winter months, and the new Riverwalk Hub will be a destination spot for hungry walkers and cyclists.

Your RAGBRAI superpowers will allow you to see through the walls of buildings at night. Or that’s just the transparent glow of the all-glass downtown branch of the Des Moines Public Library, 1000 Grand Ave., which opened in 2006.

The former downtown library, which was completed in 1903, has been converted into the headquarters of the World Food Prize, 100 Locust St. Yeah, that’s right, we take old buildings and turn them into calling cards for world leaders and dignitaries. How’s your fixer-upper coming along?

No more brain drain? Sixteen years ago, the best and brightest young Iowans were believed to be leaving and not coming back, abandoning the state for greener pastures in larger cities. Now our young professional class is celebrated as among the best in the entire country by magazines like Forbes, and YPs have discovered Des Moines is a destination to get ahead fast and network with the older generation of business and civic leaders.

A new downtown. East Village. Court Avenue. Western Gateway. Those places existed in 1997 but they’ve have all had extensive face-lifts since then. Top-shelf restaurants and bars have changed the volume and diversity of the nightlife in all three areas considerably, and the East Village in particular has become known for its boutiques and specialty shops. New housing and revitalized commercial offerings have also built up the reputation of the area between the Des Moines River and the iconic state Capitol. To the west, Western Gateway is home to the elaborate and impressive Pappajohn Sculpture Park and a new core of bars and restaurants.

The Iowa Events Center, 730 Third St., comprises Hy-Vee Hall, home of the Iowa Hall of Pride; Wells Fargo Arena, home of professional sports teams the Iowa Barnstormers (football), the Iowa Energy (basketball) and now the Iowa Wild (hockey); and Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center. Before these facilities opened in 2005, Des Moines didn’t have a place to host world-pop-star caliber talents like Justin Bieber, who performed there earlier this month. How did we survive?

The Des Moines Social Club is scheduled to complete its renovation of the nearly 80-year-old art deco downtown firehouse, 900 Mulberry St., by next year. Zach Mannheimer’s artistic brainchild has increasingly been ground zero for the city’s creative class to gather since 2007, but it had to survive at several makeshift locations until this point.
An art gallery, theater, restaurant and bar will be open the next time RAGBRAI rolls into town.

The Science Center of Iowa’s new digs opened in 2005 at 401 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, complete with an IMAX domed theater. One of these days “The RAGBRAI Experience: I Could Use a Shower” will play there.

The downtown Masonic Temple at 10th and Locust streets avoided the wrecking ball in 2002 and became the Temple for the Performing Arts. That building also holds the city’s first Starbucks coffee shop, which for some marks the date when Des Moines truly landed on the map. It’s also home to Centro, one of the to-be-seen restaurants in the metro.

The Iowa Judicial Branch Building, 1111 E. Court Ave., sits just south of the Capitol and was completed in 2003. It is home to the Iowa Supreme Court, which in 2009 issued its historic and controversial decision concerning gay marriage known as Varnum vs. Brien.

It was in 1998 that construction got underway on a path around Gray’s Lake that includes a water-crossing pedestrian bridge that lights up at night. Some of you will be staring right at it while turning Gray’s Lake beach into your own private bathtub.

Care to get some of your Christmas shopping done early? Well, then hitch up the Burley and visit two of the Des Moines area‘s big-box bookends: Jordan Creek Town Center opened to the west in 2004 in West Des Moines, and Bass Pro Shop opened to the east in Altoona in 2009.

The Des Moines Register had been in the same downtown Des Moines location since 1918, but things changed last month with a move three blocks to the east. The paper’s digital-age future is now dug in at Capital Square, 400 Locust St. Hey, presidential candidates: You’ll know where to find us soon enough.

– Todd Erzen, staff writer

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