Story by Larissa Wurm
Photo Courtesy Chris Diebel
“My goal with running for city council is to make a career of working with small business and growing a community to the next level,” Diebel said. “I believe that city council at large, particularly, has an opportunity to really impact long-term planning and visions.”
Diebel graduated from Drake in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in advertising. His career has focused on economic development and helping small businesses grow.
“I’ve worked on about $40 million of projects in town,” Diebel said.
Those projects include Zombie Burger, Gateway Market, Centro and Django.
“Not only are these small business that can be hard to get off the ground, but they’re also job creators,” Diebel said. “They help make our city a really cool place to live. … Things like the (Pappajohn) Sculpture Park, that just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Diebel said to accomplish that goal, the city needs a leader who has has the long-term planning skills.
“The Principal Riverwalk, Grey’s Lake, these are all projects that current students may take for granted, but the truth is, when I was growing up at Roosevelt High School, this stuff did not exist,” Diebel said. “A lot of it takes a long time to plan. … But the truth is, there’s a real opportunity for long-term planning, and that’s what I want to get my hands in.”
After graduating from high school in 1999, Diebel moved to Waco, Texas, to attend Baylor University. He eventually decided to return to Iowa and attend Drake.
Diebel read about a project brewing downtown and decided he wanted to get involved. He set up a meeting with the developer and asked to be an intern on the project.
“Unbeknownst to me, I was working on one of the most high-profile projects probably in the history of Des Moines: the Temple for Performing Arts,” Diebel said. “This is before there was a library, before there was a (Pappajohn) Sculpture Park. The first Starbucks in the entire state was that one. I was working on this at 20 years old.”
Diebel said Des Moines provides involvement opportunities, thanks to its small-town culture amid a big-city environment.
“If you want to get involved, you can do it because people will take your calls,” Diebel said. “People are polite, and it’s an acceptable size that you don’t feel like you’re missing much. But you can get your hands in anything you want.”
Diebel initially considered running for a city council seat four years ago but decided against it because of a crowded candidate field.
“Five people got in the race. … I knew that I had two good friends who were eyeing it,” Diebel said. “They were going to divide my base, and none of us were going to win. On the political side of it all, I said, ‘You know what, there are other ways I can serve the community.’”
During this period, Diebel worked at Orchestrate, a startup company. He worked his way up in the company, eventually becoming marketing director.
Diebel then decided to head back to Drake to get his master’s degree in public administration.
“That taught me a lot about the public policy side of things and the planning side of things,” Diebel said.
Upon graduation, Diebel got a job at LPCA Public Strategies, a public relations firm downtown.
“I joined that firm just under two years ago,” Diebel said. “I maintained Orchestrate as a client, so I still get to work with all of them, and I work with a number of developers and a lot of clients at creating and growing their small business.”
Diebel said his favorite projects include those in adaptive reuse situations: “Old buildings we’re making new again.”
The city council candidate has been involved in the community in a variety of ways the last few years, including raising money for nonprofits, Winesfest and running the Des Moines RAGBRAI stop in July.
“We had a party on the river for about 40,000 people with not a single arrest. We brought a tour of 90s bands, lit fireworks, all that,” Diebel said. “To some people, this might just look like party planning, but the truth is, it’s a ton of work, and it raises a lot of money for nonprofits that really need it. It also creates fun activities that make the city a great place to live.”
While Diebel aims to involve students in local politics, his goals for city council are to make it easier for businesses to not only get started, but keep going — starting with property taxes. He said he wants to make the city an easier place to do business.
“Des Moines has a relatively high property taxes relative to its suburbs, so we have to keep property taxes as low as possible,” Diebel said. “We have to find unique ways to get revenue from other sources. I don’t want to raise property taxes on anybody. I want to remain competitive.”
“We need to find other sources of revenue,” Diebel said. “We need to find a leader who’s willing to look at different ways we can do that.”
“For instance, I met with the Home Builders Association, and when I asked them, ‘What are the biggest challenges in Des Moines?’ their response was, ‘There are so many layers of permits and red tape, we can’t get anything approved,’” Diebel said.
“We’ve got to make it easier to do business here, and we’ve got to cut through some of this red tape,” Diebel said. “We don’t want to sacrifice quality.”
Diebel encourages student involvement, especially in local races.
“Students in general get a bad rap for not being involved in politics and not getting involved in local elections,” Diebel said. “Presidential races are one thing. … But the truth is, these down-ballot races like city council have just as much, if not more, day-to-day impact on students’ lives.”
“We’re here to recruit participation,” Diebel said. “Every single vote counts. For people to say they can’t have an impact is absolutely false. They can have a big impact, and we can get people more involved in the community here.”
The city council election is non-partisan, and that is one of the appeals for Diebel.
“One of the things that’s really invigorating to me about running for city council is that you don’t get bogged down in all the partisan stuff,” Diebel said. “You’re able to reach across the aisle. You find a lot more to agree on than disagree on if you’re doing it right.”
Vice President for Alumni and Development John Smith met Diebel through a friend who was formerly the associate director of alumni relations. He said Diebel is everywhere in Des Moines.
“He is one of those individuals that never rests when it comes to creating positive change in the community,” Smith said. “Chris is an energetic professional. When something needs creativity and promotion, he brings vitality, life and success to the event. He is the quintessential young professional.”
“From the beginning, I knew he had the skills, the drive and the commitment to be successful in whatever he does,” Smith said. “His Drake experience, early professional experience and commitment would make him a valuable representative to Des Moines.”
Associate Professor of Practice in Entrepreneurship Tom Swartwood said he met Diebel professionally in the restaurant business and overlapping community outreach.
“He’s very engaged in the community,” Swartwood said. “He’s very involved in small businesses. Hearing about him, it appears like he actually got stuff done, while juggling his developing career.”
Swartwood agreed that Diebel is everywhere in Des Moines.
“He doesn’t just show up to meetings or events,” Swartwood said. “He steps in and gets involved.”
Swartwood said that to improve the city, we need that “hip demeanor and perspective to the council, which can be lacking.”
“We need young people in the council to attract young professionals,” Swartwood said. “It’s for the future of the city.”
He encouraged students to get involved in local elections.
“Students spend four to five years right in the center of the city and enjoy the benefits,” Swartwood said. “They can do more. Many of them will stay here. Drake students could affect the outcome of this election.”
“Get engaged,” Swartwood said. “Make something happen.”
“We need to do all we can do to make this city a better place,” Diebel said.