Economic and Community Development

Listening to Leaders: Regional Stewards & Civic Innovators

Shelley Lauten on Friday, November 8, 2013 at 12:00:00 am

ACCE’s Regional Strategies Division is launching a new series of Leadership Profiles focused on how regional leaders across the country are “making it happen.”

clientuploads/ARS/awards/JohnParr_Lauten.jpgBy Shelley Lauten, partner with triSect, LLC, a strategy consulting firm focused on civic innovation (

Regional collaboration, as theory, makes a lot of sense. Communities come together to share resources. Partnerships are formed to leverage assets. Public agencies and private companies come together to build stronger economies and enhance their communities’ quality of life.

Why then, is “regional collaboration” so darn hard? ACCE’s Regional Strategies Division launches this quarterly series to interview regional practitioners who are breaking down barriers and creating innovative partnerships—and showing specific and measurable impact in their regions.

Who better to begin this series than the leaders of the Greater Des Moines Partnership—winners of the 2013 Organizational Champion Award for its work on behalf of “Capital Crossroads”?

clientuploads/ARS/DesMoinesLeadersA.gifI sat down with leaders of the Greater Des Moines Partnership—Jay Byers, CEO, Eugene Meyer, president and Susan Ramsey, senior vice president of communications and marketing, to get a clearer understanding not only what they’ve done, but how they’ve done it.

SL: Let’s start from the beginning. The Greater Des Moines Partnership was created by the leaders of the Greater Des Moines Chamber Federation, which had been in existence for over 100 years. Susan, you were there through the transition. Why the change?

Susan: In the late 1990s, our business leaders saw the writing on the wall. They were serving on multiple boards and supporting multiple organizations focused on very similar business and community issues. We had two separate economic development groups, one focused on the downtown core and one focused regionally; a separate chamber federation; and a separate downtown events and neighborhood improvement group. The organizations’ missions and goals were complimentary, but strategically, they were fragmented. Our investors’ time commitment alone was untenable, but they also felt they weren’t getting the best bang for the buck.

SL: So, where did you start?

Susan: The Chamber Federation chair led a core team of community leaders in reviewing other cities’ experience with similar growing pains, as well as the national trend towards regionalism. Improved efficiency was an important short-term goal, but ultimately they wanted improved economic competitiveness, with our communities coming together and collaborating for greater success.

SL: OK, but the Des Moines Chamber Federation had 125 years of tradition and institutional pride. Was that hard to overcome? How did it happen?

Susan: Very thoughtfully. While the details of the organizational merger were being finalized, a new investment initiative was launched to fund a five year economic and community development plan with clearly defined goals. The campaign raised a record (for the time) $10 million. Simultaneously, that same core team conducted an executive search for a proven regional leader. The combination of secured funding and new leadership created a win-win opportunity. At the end of 1999, three of the four groups formally dissolved to create the umbrella organization called the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The downtown group moved into the Partnership offices, but remained organizationally independent until its board approved the merger in 2003.

clientuploads/ARS/partnership-logo_largeA.gifSL: Jay, how has the Partnership grown?

Jay: Creating a thriving business environment, for organizations large and small, is crucial to the overall success of the region. We began in 1999 with just over 2,000 business members and a fairly traditional member benefit program. Today, we work regionally with 20 affiliate chambers of commerce, representing 4,700 business members who wish to grow their businesses, grow their community, and grow economic opportunity for Central Iowa. By collaborating with local chambers, communities, and other local economic development groups, we have helped drive over $3 billion of capital investment since we merged in 1999.

SL: Wow. 20 Chambers coming together. How does the affiliated chamber relationship work?

Jay: In 2007, we joined forces with our regional chambers to develop an improved membership model that created the best value for the individual business and the region as a whole. With efficiency and effectiveness driving our discussions, we identified competing programs and services between the Partnership and our local chambers. We agreed to divide and conquer with a “dual membership” model we launched in 2008.

The affiliate chambers now sell all memberships, offering those services so important at the local level: networking opportunities, community engagement, and local leadership. Those members receive regional benefits from the Partnership at no additional cost: regional economic development, workforce attraction, downtown development, small business development, international programming, public policy, long term visioning, and more. Under this model, you have all the business-to-business connections of your local chamber, as well as the collective economic impact of the regional Partnership. Our regional work is funded primarily by over 300 public and private investors who want to see Greater Des Moines grow.


SL: Gene, how did all this lead to “Capital Crossroads,” your award-winning visioning process?

Gene: Capital Crossroads capitalizes on this new regional identity and buy-in to ensure Central Iowa continues to grow and prosper for current and future generations. The vision plan was developed by a steering committee that included the Partnership, but also involved other key community organizations: Bravo Greater Des Moines, Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, Des Moines Area MPO, Iowa State University, Prairie Meadows, and United Way of Central Iowa.

We very intentionally expanded the scope of the plan to a geographic region that is within a 50-mile radius of the state capitol. We evaluated input from close to 5,000 citizens on everything from infrastructure to community culture. It took a year to get from input to implementation, but the time was well spent. Today, we have over 500 community and business leaders working on short and long-term projects with significant community support and momentum.

SL: What have you accomplished?

Gene: In the first year, we were able to complete 34 initiatives from across our 11 core areas or “Capitals.” More importantly, we’ve progressed on a number of key benchmarks, including graduation rate, employment, population growth, and per capita personal income. You can read the report online at www.capitalcrossroadvision.comand you can hear Jay discuss them further during an ACCE webinar happening Nov. 8, at 2 p.m. ET.

And our efforts are paying off. Here are just a few of the community recognitions we’ve received this year:

SL: Jay, what advice do you have for others who might be interested in making regional partnerships work?

Jay: I’ve always believed in Peter Drucker’s quote: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” That’s what we are trying to do in Central Iowa. We’ve set measureable goals, and we’ve been very open about our process. Our business and community leaders have asked us to look at everything: structure, process and programs… and evaluate ourselves against the best in class regions around the world. By doing so, we can build on this momentum and achieve our vision of a world class region where you’ll find big city opportunity in a place where you can breathe, a region where a thriving and robust economy equals greater prosperity and vibrant, safe, diverse neighborhoods, where talented, hardworking people collaborate to build successful businesses, and where we honor our heritage of education and stewardship of our natural resources in a clean and sustainable environment.

Thanks for letting us tell our story.

For more information on the Greater Des Moines Partnership, visit You can participate with Jay Byers, CEO, during the Nov. 8 webinar.

Listening to Leaders is written by Shelley Lauten, partner with triSect, LLC, a strategy consulting firm focused on civic innovation ( If you have a “Listening to Leaders” idea or have a regional success story you’d like to share, please email Shelley at

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