Harnessing Community and Innovation: A New Era for Sports and Student-Athletes

May 01, 2024
Architecture Landscape Architecture Lighting Design Sports

Des Moines’ landmark Mediacom Stadium marks a significant step in transforming local sports and student experiences through shared vision and resources.

For more than a century, Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) and Drake University, a private university, have collaborated to support the education of students in Iowa's capital city of Des Moines. That partnership took another step forward with Mediacom Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility that serves as the home competition stadium for Division I soccer and high school football and soccer. The stadium is located within the Drake Athletic Complex that forms the northern boundary of Drake’s historic and architecturally significant campus, including significant contributions from renowned architects Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rowe and Harry Weese. The $24 million stadium broke ground in 2021 and hosted its first games in the fall of 2023. It's part of a district-wide initiative to upgrade athletic facilities at DMPS high schools and is one of many significant developments on the Drake campus and throughout the Drake neighborhood, many of which are focused on increasing connectivity between the university and the broader community.

View from upper level of home grandstand

In addition to supporting student athletics, this shared-use synthetic turf stadium stands as a testament to the successful collaboration between DMPS and Drake University and the significant role public-private partnerships can play in addressing infrastructure needs and fostering a sense of community and shared purpose. The partnership between DMPS, Drake University, the city of Des Moines and other key stakeholders sought to align the interests and resources of educational institutions, local governments and private entities, creating a shared vision for how the stadium could serve both institutions and the Des Moines community. By addressing critical athletic facility needs through the lens of shared benefits, the project has set a precedent in how educational institutions can extend their resources and impact.

The successful development of the stadium demonstrates that public-private partnerships can be a highly effective strategy for achieving substantial capital improvements and community engagement. In this article, we explore what it means to develop a robust public-private partnership like the one between DMPS and Drake University and the impact such collaboration can have on optimizing resources.

Public-Private Partnerships: A Pathway to Community Development

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are typically used to enhance efficiency and innovation through collaborations between government entities and private-sector organizations. The benefit of PPPs is that they allow public sector entities to leverage the private sector's expertise, efficiency and capital, and can help speed along projects while minimizing financial strain.

The most successful PPPs leverage the strengths of both public and private partners to deliver projects that might not be feasible if each entity were to try to complete separate projects on their own. In the case of Mediacom Stadium, the collaboration between DMPS, Drake University and other stakeholders reflects a strategic approach to addressing an identified gap in facilities and enhancing the greater needs of the community.

A New Home Stadium: Designing and Building Mediacom Stadium

Beginning more than a decade before the completion of the stadium, separately, both institutions determined significant deficiencies in their existing athletic facilities, which needed to be updated and improved to meet the needs of their programs. DMPS faced issues including accessibility, aging infrastructure and limited practice spaces due to the outdated design of their four existing stadia. These stadia, each associated with a specific DMPS high school, also limited the availability of needed practice space on game nights. A fifth Des Moines high school lacked a stadium altogether and was already utilizing the historic Drake Stadium, famous for its “Blue Oval” and annual Drake Relays, which feature Olympic-qualifying athletes. After assessing the existing structures, it was determined that a $90 million investment would be required to update the aging DMPS facilities to today's standards.

Drake University, meanwhile, needed a suitable home stadium for its NCAA Division 1 soccer programs. The teams lacked a true home competition stadium that met the league's requirements. Consequently, the Bulldogs were left without a home field. Instead, they relied on a local natural grass facility located a significant distance from the university. With these limitations, the Bulldog soccer teams were often forced to play "home" games at the "visitors" field, sometimes hundreds of miles away from Des Moines. These factors were a significant deterrent to student-athlete recruitment, fundraising efforts, administration of the program and Drake's ability to host playoff games. 

Faced with these challenges, both institutions saw a unique opportunity in a partnership that could serve dual purposes — revitalizing the school district's athletic facilities and providing Drake University with the type of facility required to support collegiate sports effectively. This vision led to the strategic collaboration that would eventually result in Mediacom Stadium, addressing both entities' needs through shared resources and objectives. The project's aim was clear: to create a state-of-the-art stadium to serve multiple educational institutions and the community, enhancing the fan and athlete experience while being economically feasible.

The primary challenge faced by DMPS was the capital cost of renovating multiple aging facilities and constructing new ones. A PPP model presented an innovative solution, allowing for shared financial responsibility and resource pooling, significantly mitigating the investment burden on each institution. This approach not only ensured the project's feasibility but also fostered a deeper commitment from each party to the project's success.

The project also required navigating complex municipal regulations, including land rezoning and street vacations. This necessitated extensive collaboration with the city of Des Moines and active engagement with the community to gain the necessary approvals. Public forums and consistent communication were key strategies that helped ease concerns and foster community support.

Public perception and nostalgia presented another critical consideration. It was imperative to engage the community early in the process. The project was introduced as part of a broader athletic and activities plan, which was shared with the public through multiple forums and feedback sessions. This proactive approach helped align the project with community interests and garnered widespread support. During the engagement exercises, some stakeholders expressed concern about losing the unique identities of the individual schools' sports facilities; thus, the design incorporates advanced digital technology to customize the stadium's appearance. Features like digital video boards at the stadium entries and programmable ribbon boards were installed to display the colors and logos of the home team during games, ensuring that each school could maintain its distinct home game identity while sharing the same physical space with other teams.

In the end, the successful execution of the Mediacom Stadium project was largely due to the effective collaboration among all stakeholders. From the outset, a project team was established with equal representation from DMPS and Drake University, ensuring balanced input and decision-making. The ownership team, comprised of representatives from both DMPS and Drake University, worked closely with RDG and local businesses to navigate the project's unique challenges. 

RDG's longstanding relationship with both institutions meant we brought a deep understanding of their histories and community dynamics. This allowed us to manage the unique requirements of multiple funding sources, help ensure compliance with regulatory demands and create a design that would meet all parties' needs efficiently and effectively. Clear communication and established protocols were crucial throughout the project's duration, facilitating smooth operations and alignment with the project's goals. 

A Lasting Community Impact

Since its completion, Mediacom Stadium has significantly impacted the local community as a sports facility and as a hub for various activities, including concerts and community events. This multi-use approach has maximized the facility's utility and embedded it deeply within the community's cultural and social fabric. For Drake University, the stadium provides a state-of-the-art venue for its soccer teams, significantly boosting its athletic profile and student recruitment capability. For DMPS, the new stadium offers a modern, accessible facility that levels the playing field with comparable educational institutions in the Des Moines metro area, enhancing the overall student-athlete and spectator experience. 

Moreover, the stadium has become a landmark in Des Moines, symbolizing community and collaboration. Its presence has enhanced local pride and cohesiveness, providing a shared space where the community can come together to celebrate and support local and regional sports. The project is a tangible result of a long partnership between Iowa's fourth-largest university and Iowa's largest public school district. It also captures the university's initiative to strengthen its connection to the community. Using a similar approach, Drake University has also partnered with Broadlawn's Medical Center, The Harkin Institute, the Boy's and Girl's Club and private developers to invest in facilities that serve both the campus and the broader community. 

Mediacom Stadium stands as a beacon of successful public-private collaboration, providing valuable insights into the complexities and benefits of such partnerships in educational and community projects. It demonstrates the effectiveness of PPPs, proving that with a shared vision and collaborative spirit, the participants can create lasting legacies that transcend the sum of their parts. On a crisp fall night in October of 2023, the stadium hosted its first home game; in the nine days that followed, the stadium played host to seven unique home teams, a statistic that perfectly captures the spirit of the project.

Written by Jason Blome, Landscape Architect; Matt Coen, Architect