People to Watch: Drew Kelso has his Des Moines neighborhood on the upswing
Drew Kelso leads the Highland Park Neighborhood association The Des Moines Register
Drew Kelso's first Highland Park Neighborhood Association meeting was almost his last.
It was January 2017 and the once robust north-side group had dwindled to a handful of regulars as members grew older.
“It was a do-or-die time,” said Des Moines City Councilwoman Linda Westergaard, who was at the meeting.
The neighborhood needed new leaders to step up or dissolve.
That's when Kelso showed up and started asking questions. He left the meeting as the association’s vice president. Ten months later he was president.
In the two years since then Kelso, 33, and his team have resuscitated the neighborhood association, averaging three or four times more people at monthly meetings. It joined forces with the Oak Park neighborhood and its social media presence, with a new logo, began to reach hundreds more people.
A park refurbishment, new street festival and strengthened community partnerships have followed, too, all with Kelso’s fingerprints. He’s worked as the neighborhoods’ top cheerleader, trying to promote an area on the upswing and disavow the perception of a high-crime area.
“There is a lot of great pride up here,” he said, sitting inside one of his neighborhood restaurants, Chuck’s. “People love this area. I’m just trying to make that louder.”
His mission continues into the new year. Kelso, one of the Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2019, will aid a new revitalization effort and continue a quest to bring businesses back to the north side.
Leading the effort
On its face, Highland Park may not be the most attractive neighborhood to people looking to move to Des Moines. A summer report from czb, an urban planning consultant, said the neighborhood’s property values weren’t keeping up with inflation and the majority of its housing stock is in “slipping or bad” condition.
But Kelso and his wife, Kara, saw “potential” in the neighborhood when they moved there in 2013. After he joined the association, he and the neighborhood partnered with the city to rehabilitate Belle M. Turner Park last year, and he chaired a team that organized the first annual Celebrate the Parks street festival in May.
Westergaard and the city began to take notice, and when Des Moines was looking for neighborhoods to choose for a $4.5 million revitalization program, Highland Park/Oak Park was at the top of mind.
“I think it was because of their work that they were one of the top considerations,” Westergaard said.
Des Moines did eventually pick the area as one of its pilot neighborhoods, so next year the city will pump in around $1 million for the demolition of decaying properties and other revitalization efforts, a plan Kelso will help concoct.
“They actually step in and do the work,” Westergaard said, crediting the neighborhood association as a whole. “That’s what’s refreshing.”
Larry James Jr., a Des Moines real estate attorney and former neighborhood association president, said Kelso is someone who recognizes the value of his neighborhood.
Highland Park has “all the potential Beaverdale does,” James said. In no small part because of Kelso, “the most reasonable person in the room” who’s brought more neighbors into the fold and helped turn new ideas into plans and then into action.
“He’s just a very positive person, and people see that he’s working hard to make improvements, and I think people like to get on that kind of winning bandwagon,” said Bill Wheeler, the owner of Hiland Park Hardware. “When they see things are starting to get better, they get on board.”
‘Change the narrative’
As the neighborhood president, part of the job is promoting the neighborhood, so it’s frustrating to Kelso when other central Iowa residents assume his neighborhood is in a high-crime or “bad” part of town.
Reporters came calling when a Hull Avenue bar, Triple Double, was the site of three shootings within five months earlier this year. It was newsworthy, so Kelso understood why they reached out, but he wanted to flip that script.
Celebrate the Parks was one way to do that. He and other neighborhood leaders planned the event as a way to spotlight the neighborhood’s businesses, restaurants and arts — the good things the neighborhood has going for it that maybe don’t always show up on the evening news.
“Its goal is to celebrate the north side,” Kelso said. “It’s to help change the narrative from the older part of town or the forgotten part of town or crime part of town.”
Specifically, Kelso wanted to draw attention to the Turnaround Arts program. Run by the Kennedy Center, the initiative, which began under First Lady Michelle Obama, uses arts education as a way to bolster students’ academic achievement and get them more engaged with the community.
Five north-side schools — four elementary schools and Harding Middle School — use the program, which has spawned young visual artists along with meringue and break dancing troupes that performed at Celebrate the Parks. The five schools are the only ones in the metro that use Turnaround Arts.
Ben Heinen, who heads Turnaround Arts for Des Moines Public Schools, called Kelso a “phenomenal advocate and champion” for the program who’s always quick to praise the students. After all, students at other metro schools haven’t ready poetry, break danced and sang on the Kennedy Center stage or at the White House.
Kelso said he hears people speak poorly about Harding Middle and North High School. He wants the area schools to be known for something different than troubled youth that some perceive.
“A lot of the work, for him in particular, has been trying to write a counter narrative, about trying to establish a new narrative for the youth on the north side,” Heinen said.
Unlocking the potential
Kelso will spend a lot of his time working on the revitalization effort in 2019, but there’s another big goal he wants to work on, too: Getting the city to eventually reduce the lanes on Euclid Avenue, slow down the traffic and include street parking.
With street parking, businesses may be more inclined to fill the empty storefronts near the intersection of Euclid and Sixth Avenue with restaurants or coffee shops. Patrons could visit those establishments before or after a show at the nearby Riverview Park amphitheater, which is scheduled to open in 2020.
Kelso said the traffic at peak times is too loud and fast, so people don’t think about stopping. And it doesn’t entice businesses to come to the area. Calmer traffic, along with a nearby entertainment venue, could.
If that domino falls, then maybe more homeowners move in and invest, boosting property values.
“I think (calmer traffic) is the catalyst point,” Kelso said. “I think without it, it’s not going to happen.”
Westergaard and James have been meeting with city staff in hopes to get those changes moving, but it’s been slow going so far because that stretch of Euclid is also a state highway. Westergaard, a huge advocate for the changes, pledged to keep at it.
James has told his commercial developer colleagues to buy those empty storefronts, convinced Highland Park/Oak Park are the next neighborhoods to “pop.”
“Drew is an example of how someone is leading the efforts as the neighborhood improves,” he said. “They are exactly the types of areas people are looking to move to.”
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2019" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit desmoinesregister.com/peopletowatch.
BORN: 1985, Hillsboro, Missouri
RESIDENCE: Des Moines
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in communications (2010), University of Missouri — Kansas City
OCCUPATION: New business case coordinator, Principal Financial Group
CLAIM TO FAME: President of the Highland Park/Oak Park Neighborhood Association
FAMILY: Kara Kelso, wife
More People to Watch:
- Why Sam and Tricia Gabriel, an Iowa couple who fled war, nurture refugee children
- Tiffany Johnson is helping to shape the future of theater in Des Moines
- Young pastor Minna Bothwell is fighting for marginalized groups
- Des Moines attorney tries to make the justice system work for Iowans
- Kameron Middlebrooks is the new face of Des Moines' civil rights movement
- Antoinette Stevens wants to transform Iowans' lives with technology education
- Kum & Go's Tanner Krause ready to make his mark at family business
- Caitlin Pedati, 'Iowa's doctor,' will offer calm guidance when pestilence is on the prowl
- Meet the Iowa National Guard's only female infantry officer, Trang Jorgensen
- Drew Kelso has his Des Moines neighborhood on the upswing
- Justin Mandelbaum is trying to make Des Moines as hip as Austin, Portland or Nashville
- Drake professor works to improve life for youth with autism across Iowa