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Best Cities 2010: Des Moines, Iowa

By Betsy Rubiner

A likely worker shortage sparked by retiring baby-boomers has lit a fire under Des Moines’s civic leaders. The city is working to lure back young Iowans and attracting global talent by developing its downtown and promoting the jobs available in the many industries that flourish there. Other big draws: low-cost housing, plus the city’s long-touted reputation for family-friendliness and a “19-minute commute.”

You want high-tech? Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a top agricultural-seed company, plans to invest $154 million on an expansion that will create 400 jobs over the next three years, including well-paying positions in scientific research. In the past two years, Pioneer has added nearly 500 jobs in central Iowa, where it now employs nearly 2,400 workers.

“We use Des Moines as a global hub for agriculture biotechnology,” says Bill Niebur, an executive who has overseen crop genetics research and development at Pioneer, which is owned by DuPont. Niebur thinks the tide has turned in attracting talent to Des Moines “It used to be that you’d go off and spend your twenties and thirties somewhere else and then come back with your children,” he says. Now, when Pioneer recruits recent college graduates for Des Moines biotech jobs, “we don’t feel we’re at a disadvantage.”

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There’s more to Des Moines than agricultural jobs. Employers include Principal Financial Group and Wells Fargo in insurance and finance, as well as Meredith Corp. in publishing. The city also has a deep entrepreneurial streak, and its low costs and educated workforce make it fertile ground for business. Success stories range from Outcomes Pharmaceutical Health Care, which helps patients manage their prescriptions, to SmartyPig, a social network for savers that helps friends and family members support people who are putting money aside for certain goals.

David Maahs, of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a metro-area economic and community-development organization, predicts that Des Moines will benefit from “consumers looking to save and rebuild their net worth” and from the “global need for food products and higher nutrition.”

Challenges remain downtown, including a glut of office space and a dearth of pedestrians as workers flood into the city’s skywalks. Air travel is cumbersome. Civic-minded, can-do residents worry about maintaining strong public schools and metro-area cooperation.

But with the median price for a single-family home at $149,300, Des Moines families can live in charming old neighborhoods and once-rural suburbs while young Creative Class types and empty nesters are being drawn downtown to new condos and loft apartments in trendy revitalized neighborhoods.

Added to Des Moines’ long-standing attractions and events -- its contemporary-art center, symphony orchestra, recreational trails, the downtown farmers market, arts festival and grand old Iowa State Fair -- are newer, sometimes edgier, offerings. These include a world cup triathlon that lures both elite and everyday athletes; a 4.4-acre downtown sculpture park with 24 sculptures valued at some $40 million; and a summer music festival that draws popular bands, such as Spoon and Modest Mouse.

VIDEO: Take a Guided Tour of Des Moines

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