Story by Jeff Eckhoff, Des Moines Register, July 31, 2012
Ralph Marasco looks at construction equipment sitting on a triangular piece of property southeast of downtown Des Moines and sees possibility — or at least potential.
What if, one day, this storage space for scrap metal on Southeast First Street became a focal point for Italian culture? What if, one day, people flocked to cooking classes, language classes or fashion shows at what would then become a southern anchor of a newly revitalized Des Moines riverwalk?
“The goal is to create a focal point for the preservation, protection and promotion of the culture,” said Marasco, 70. “Obviously, everything is depending on the dollars.”
Marasco, the son of a Des Moines baker whose bread company once sat on the site of the current Italian-American Cultural Center in south Des Moines, now is the point person for a $165,000 study focused on finding that facility a new home.
The center, at 1961 Indianola Ave., has existed since the early 1980s as a combination south-side meeting hall, museum and genealogical library aimed at charting the progress of Italians through Iowa’s history. Wedding photos from across the state hang in the same room with displays commemorating, among other things, Iowa’s Italian entertainers, its Italian-owned businesses and its priests. But the museum over the years has become cramped for space. And the kitchen, where they still hold classes and prepare cultural dinners, is outdated.
The question is what anybody can do about it.
The $165,000 — money that includes $65,000 from a pot of gambling revenue controlled by the Polk County supervisors and $99,250 that the center raised, mostly, from what Marasco describes as a single anonymous benefactor — is slated to be spent over the next few months to study moving to the former home of Gillotti Construction. The Gillotti land, roughly 6.5 acres located south of the Des Moines River and just east of Mullets bar, would provide more than enough space for the cultural center.
Polk County Supervisor John Mauro said there’s probably enough room on the property to eventually develop an Italian restaurant, Italian bakery and perhaps an Italian market.
“I think it would be an excellent deal if they could do the entire project,” Mauro said. “To me, it’s a great thing. It’s got some life, and I’m going to push for it.”
The question is whether it will work.
Experts plan to spend the next few months studying things like the center’s environmental and architectural needs, Marasco said. They’ll also need to explore government grant options, such as a pot of federal money that might help officials build a new energy-efficient building. Lastly, there will be a marketing study to find out whether it’s possible to raise enough money to build it.
Polk County records show the center, a regular recipient of grants from Polk’s gambling-funded Community Betterment program, has received $90,000 over the past four years alone.
Mauro on Monday downplayed the possibility of specific future grants for land acquisition.
“I’m sure we’d like to be part of it, but we can’t be a big part of it,” Mauro said. “The Italian community’s going to have to step up also. It can’t just be everybody else.”
Exact details of what will be included in a proposed new building will be determined as part of the feasibility process. But Marasco said his thoughts are of a roughly 25,000-square-foot structure that uses geothermal heating. It would be regularly filled with classes, events and traveling exhibits showing Italian culture.
“If somebody’s 2 or 92, there ought to be something there for them to do two or three times a year,” Marasco said.
And plenty to look at, he added. Like maybe, for example, a borrowed Ferrari in the lobby? Possibilities are endless.
“You let this go,” he said, “and it just gets wild.”