Amber Lynch will work to lift up four Des Moines neighborhoods as Invest DSM director
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
The Des Moines mayoral race gave special attention to the capital city's neighborhoods, with the candidates promising that they'd work to improve the places taxpayers call home.
But there's one person in Des Moines already working to implement those campaign themes, with perhaps a deeper knowledge of the ins and outs of the 52 unique neighborhoods that make up the city.
Amber Lynch was recently appointed the first executive director of Invest DSM, a new nonprofit designed to make investments in four target neighborhoods to improve housing stock, increase amenities and attract new businesses.
The hope is that Invest DSM will serve as a catalyst for these neighborhoods to become self-sustaining and appealing for continued revitalization.
Lynch, 38, was chosen as one of the Des Moines Register's People to Watch in 2020 as Invest DSM's program gets underway and the first improvements become visible in the new year.
"Neighborhoods are places that are very personal to people," she said. "They're places where you spend a lot of your time, and so I think there's something really valuable about making sure that neighborhoods are places that people are proud to call home."
The brainchild of City Manager Scott Sanders, Invest DSM was formed as an independent nonprofit in July. Lynch left her job as a senior city planner to become its executive director.
Invest DSM is governed by a six-member board of directors with equal representation from Polk County supervisors and the Des Moines City Council. The city and the county have committed to funding the program for 10 years, with a projected total investment of $50 million.
Invest DSM's first four neighborhoods are Columbus Park, Oak Park/Highland Park, Drake and Beaverdale/Waveland Park (known as the Franklin district). It will add other neighborhoods as it refines how the program will work.
"I think we definitely found the right person because she's worked in the neighborhoods and really understands the mechanics of them," said Angela Connolly, a Polk County supervisor and Invest DSM board member. "It's pretty exciting. This is really going to be a game-changer."
Lynch spent her childhood moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, mostly in suburban areas. It wasn't until she moved to Des Moines a decade ago that she came to love urban neighborhoods, where neighbors can walk to a nearby restaurant or accompany their children on a walk to school.
She and her husband live in Waveland Park on the city's west side with their two daughters.
Building on strengths
Lynch's love for neighborhood revitalization began while she was earning her master's degree in community and regional planning at Iowa State University. While a student, she interned in Des Moines' Neighborhood Development Division. The department hired her upon graduation as a city planner, and she worked there for 10 years.
"Neighborhoods are complicated because there's a lot of different variables to think about," such as amenities, housing stock, schools, transportation and the general economics of the families living there, she said. "So that's intriguing to me. How do you get all those pieces to work together to create places that people love to live in?"
Asked to describe the challenges in each of Invest DSM's four target neighborhoods, Lynch instead chose to highlight the neighborhoods' unique aspects. She pointed to the diversity of housing stock and mature trees in Drake; the proximity to downtown and the strong Italian and Hispanic heritage in Columbus Park; the historic business district and access to parks and trails in Oak Park/Highland Park; and the unique architecture and family friendly atmosphere in the Franklin district.
The neighborhoods were chosen based on their momentum for change, whether it was a committed group of residents or developer interest in new projects.
"Each one of these places has strengths we can build on," Lynch said.
Des Moines has had a neighborhood revitalization program for nearly 30 years, but this is the first time it has broken from its standard practices. The city spent two years reviewing the program's successes and failures, which resulted in the addition of the Invest DSM model with the hope that a more targeted approach and dedicated funding will make a greater impact. (The city's neighborhood program relies on grant funding, which is largely inconsistent or often has parameters that don't accommodate the work needed.)
"She's got a willingness to try new processes. And we understand, and she's embraced the idea, that the Invest DSM neighborhood model is a bold change from what we had done before," Sanders said.
A coalition of nonprofits took a similar approach a few years ago when it banded together for the Viva East Bank project, which invested $16 million in three east-side neighborhoods over seven years.
While some aspects were successful, the neighborhoods still need a lot of work, Lynch said. And they did not become sustainable on their own, as is the goal with Invest DSM, Sanders said.
15 People to Watch in 2020: These Iowans are working for good in the new year
Down to details
The new year will be a big one for Invest DSM.
Lynch plans to hire three employees — an administrative assistant, an outreach coordinator and a construction supervisor — as well as find office space.
She and the board also are finalizing the mechanics of the program, including what types of projects qualify for funding, how much to give to each property owner, and how the application process works.
Projects could be anything from curb appeal upgrades or kitchen remodels to new garages or additions, to start-up costs for small businesses. Lynch and the board will make those decisions after a listening tour of sorts, meeting with neighborhood groups and knocking on homeowners' doors.
Lynch said Invest DSM will be a matching program, meaning property owners will have to commit to funding a portion of the project. The group will also work with existing neighborhood programs, such as Neighborhood Finance Corp. or Home Inc., to pool resources and make a greater impact.
"The goal of this is for these neighborhoods to be healthy places, and by that, I mean places where it makes sense for people to invest their own time, energy and money," Lynch said. "Part of the way we need to do that is by building confidence in the future of these areas by helping people understand what's already great and how we can make it better by working together."
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Amber Lynch
- BORN: Urbana, Illinois, 1981
- RESIDENCE: Des Moines
- EDUCATION: Bachelor's in Spanish from Luther College, 2003; Master's in Community and Regional Planning from Iowa State University, 2007
- OCCUPATION: Executive Director of Invest DSM
- TITLES or POSITIONS of NOTE: Senior city planner for Des Moines
- FAMILY: Husband, Ryan Lynch; daughters Nora, 7, Hailey, 4
- WEBSITE: Coming soon
Kim Norvell covers growth and development for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8259.
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