Not all modern arenas are created equal. While pretty much every newer arena has suites and other premium seating, good sight lines and a signature design feature, you rarely see all the elements come together just right. But Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines is a gem that comes awfully close to a perfect fit.Year Opened: 2005
Capacity: 16,980 (center stage concerts), 16,110 (basketball), 15,181 (hockey)
Owner: Polk County
Architect: HOK Sport
Original Cost: $99 million
Web Site: iowaeventscenter.com
Anchor Tenants: Iowa Chops (AHL) / Iowa Barnstormers (AF2) / Iowa Energy (NBA D-League).
Parking: The main lot north of Vets Auditorium charges $6 and can be accessed via Third, Fifth or Crocker. Other options are meters on the street, and $5 city garages such as the park & ride lot at 7th and Center.
Directions: Iowa Events Center, 730 Third St., Des Moines, IA 50309. From either I-80 or I-35, take the I-235 exit heading toward downtown to the Third Street (Downtown Des Moines) exit; Wells Fargo Arena is located one block south.
Not all modern arenas are created equal. While pretty much every newer arena has suites and other premium seating, good sight lines and a signature design feature, you rarely see all the elements come together just right. But Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines is a gem that comes awfully close to a perfect fit.
The achievement is particularly impressive when you consider that this jewel had to be placed perfectly within a crown — namely, the sprawling Iowa Events Center on the northeast edge of downtown. Originally, Des Moines featured the 1950s-era Veterans Memorial Auditorium, followed by Polk Convention Complex in 1985 located a few blocks closer to downtown. Wells Fargo Arena and the Hy-Vee Hall linked the two older facilities, creating the impressive Iowa Events Center. Total cost was $217 million, making it the largest publicly funded building project in state history.
The undertaking of bringing together four very different venues without creating a real hodge-podge was a challenge. Not only is the Events Center arrangement superbly functional, the grouping is aesthetically pleasing inside and out. Des Moines has a first-class convention and entertainment complex that should meet the community’s needs for many years to come.
Beyond a doubt, though, Wells Fargo Arena is the crown jewel. Distinctive and appealing from every external vantage point, the arena arguably is even more impressive upon entering. While the north-side building entrance technically is considered the main gate, the downtown side brings you directly up to the signature Principal River’s Edge restaurant, as well as near magnificent concourse vistas to the south and east.
To the southwest, you get a fine view of downtown and the other events center venues. To the southeast, the Des Moines River flows majestically southward flanked by green spaces. Directly beneath the arena, the Principal Riverwalk is currently under construction. Once completed, the 1.2-mile river walk will link a variety of natural, cultural and commercial areas bordering both sides of the river. Further to the east, you can view the State Capitol.
One of the best ways to take in these views is by reserving a table at the River’s Edge up to 90 minutes before the game. If you don’t have a restaurant reservation, your access to the arena is restricted to no more than an hour before game time. Managed by Ovations Food Services, the food is hearty and reasonably priced. River’s Edge is set up efficiently to handle at least 180 people within the restaurant, coupled with handy access to an end section inside the arena after tipoff. Alternatively, your concession stand options are fairly basic compared to the typical offerings at many of the newer arenas. Beyond standard jumbo hot dogs and brats (each at $4.50), the most-substantial choices available are ribeye ($7) or pork tenderloin ($5) sandwiches. Strong drinks can run a bit pricey for middle America tastes at $6 for a single, $9 for a double.
Getting all the pieces to fit together just right is a real art in big, modern arenas. The problem mostly relates to trying to squeeze 18,000 to 20,000 seats into a space that caters heavily to quality viewing in the suites and club seating. Those last 3,000 to 5,000 seats, especially in the top level, can end up pretty marginal.
This clearly is not the case with Wells Fargo Arena. You have a choice of 36 corporate suites, 20 loge boxes and 600 club seats. The leather-covered loge box seats come in groups of four, six and eight seats complete with concierge service. And the lower bowl capacity seems just right at 7,500 seats. Even the top level seats are far better than you would expect, feeling properly connected to rest of the arena. All the pieces fit together beautifully. The key here is everyone holding a ticket will feel they are close to the action.
The sense of inclusiveness goes far beyond your view of the action, though. The common areas are attractive and fairly spacious throughout the building. Everyone has access to the River’s Edge restaurant. The scoreboard is first rate. You will find plenty of men’s, women’s and family bathrooms on every level. Kids have a bouncy castle and puck shooting for letting loose some of their excess energy. Even smokers get a spacious outside patio with a great view. I got the strong impression the arena is well managed by Global Spectrum.
This last point is hard to totally confirm based on my limited experience. Unsurprisingly on my visit, the Iowa Stars drew an extremely small crowd to a late Sunday afternoon game in the midst of football season. The venue was very well staffed — which is not always the case when a low draw is expected. To get a better idea about facility management, though, we would want to visit the arena on a much-busier day. It is not at all unusual to have multiple, well-attended events scheduled throughout the complex on some weekend dates.
The announced crowd of 3,818 didn’t have much reason to cheer as a five-goal second period for Milwaukee blew open a 1-1 game after the first intermission on the way to a 7-3 final. The Admirals were comfortably in control throughout the game. They were probably pretty comfortable before the game, as well. A tour of the clubhouse and other non-public areas before the game indicated that the arena has first-rate guest facilities throughout, and even a spacious “Green Room” for the family and guests of team members.
As for paying customers, one of the more interesting venders you might have an opportunity to meet is Eddie Davis . He has been shining shoes in Des Moines since 1939 when he came to visit his aunt and never left. At age 85, the ordained Pentecostal minister has a community center named after him in West Des Moines. An old-fashioned deep shine for $7 ($10 for boots) from Eddie will last several weeks, and you’re likely to hear an interesting story or two from the committed Stars hockey fan.
Rarely will you find a string of dark nights at the arena on a visit to Des Moines. The events center complex hosts about 500 events yearly, including many major high school athletic contests. The Iowa Hall of Pride within HyVee Hall offers a distinctive interactive museum experience celebrating state athletic accomplishments, geared toward the throngs of visiting young people and school field trips. Even the Vets Auditorium still gets its share of intimate gatherings (configurable seating in a range from 7,200 to 11,277). Ozzie Osbourne celebrated the 30th anniversary of his renowned 1977 bat-bite stunt in a November 2007 return engagement at the Vet. No shocking developments to report this time around.
If you visit the Iowa Events Center — and Wells Fargo Arena in particular — you’re unlikely to run into shocking developments; just pleasant surprises. Give yourself extra time to really check out the arena, the full complex and surrounding area. There’s much worth seeing.