Jul 21, 2021 - Business

EMC wants taxes waived for Des Moines park development

A warning sign on a fence outside the downtown Des Moines construction site where EMC Insurance wants to build a park.

The downtown site where EMC plans to build a park remains undeveloped and blocked from public access. Photo: Jason Clayworth/Axios

EMC Insurance is asking Des Moines to waive property taxes on the downtown site where the company wants to build a park instead of expanding its headquarters, city officials confirmed to Axios.

Why it matters: It's a potential loss in tax base on a spot considered to be a prime location for downtown redevelopment.

  • Yes, but: Parks are community assets that help improve people's health, reduce crime and strengthen local economies, according to the City Parks Alliance.

Driving the news: EMC announced on Friday that it's putting its $24 million expansion on an indefinite hold, and that the company instead wants to turn the property into a neighborhood park.

  • The decision was made after the company determined no near-term needs for additional office space, partly due to work-from-home flexibilities following the pandemic.

Flashback: The property, 701 Walnut St., is the site of the former Younkers department store that was destroyed by a fire in 2014.

  • The western half was saved and converted into the Wilkins Building apartments. (The iconic tea room is now an events venue.)
  • Multiple plans to redevelop the Younkers site fizzled before its downtown neighbor EMC purchased the property in 2018 for a headquarters expansion.

Details: The site, which is less than 0.4 acres, is assessed for $1.2 million by the Polk County Assessor.

  • EMC purchased it for $1.9 million, and taxes are currently $45,500 a year.
  • The insurer is now asking for those taxes to be waived in exchange for EMC paying for the park's development, DSM Parks director Ben Page confirmed this week.

Of note: The cost and full scope of plans for the park are unknown at this time, but EMC envisions sports courts, seating, raised flower beds and public art.

  • The land would be used as a park for at least 10 years through an agreement with DSM, EMC said.
  • Ongoing maintenance would mostly be the city's responsibility.

What they're saying: Mayor Frank Cownie commended EMC for the plan in a statement Friday, saying the park "will fill a much-needed void in the community."

  • EMC didn't directly answer if it would proceed without a tax break. "Based on initial discussions with the city, we anticipate that the waiver will be approved," spokesperson Sarah Buckley told us.

What's next: City staff will negotiate the terms of the park agreement and present them to the City Council for approval this fall.

  • EMC projected a late summer 2022 opening if approved.

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