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Tourism Takes on Different Looks in Iowa

Associated Press

The Gazette

July 10, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Associated Press and The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

COUNCIL BLUFFS (AP) — Tourism can be an amorphous thing.

It takes the shape of a family packing into a station wagon for a trip to Disneyland. Or the form of a smitten newlywed couple headed off to Oahu for their honeymoon.

    Or it might be an elderly couple who drives an hour, decked out in matching teal tops and cowboy boots, so they can waltz around a semicircle of part-time musicians who play slightly discordant bluegrass.

    At least that’s what Iowa hopes.

    Tourism trends nationwide show people are taking trips closer to home, in part because of gas prices that have risen precipitously — more than a dollar per gallon in the last five years.

    The climate has forced state tourism officials to get creative when it comes to selling the state. For Iowa, one solution has been to play small ball, emphasizing sites that might not warrant a weeklong trip but can bring a family — and its wallet — into town for a day or even a few hours.

    ‘‘We don’t just have one attraction,’’ says Nancy Landess, manager of Iowa’s tourism office. ‘‘There are lots of little things, big and small that make Iowa special.’’

    One of those sites is the Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, where Jim and Joyce Everson come most Thursdays. The Eversons live in Mead, Neb., but the hourlong drive is worth it for the couple because of a weekly event called ‘‘Jam and Bread.’’ Each week, a group of mostly elderly musicians plays impromptu bluegrass music at the Trails Center, and visitors can munch on free jam and home-baked bread.

    The Eversons, though, come to dance.

    Jim, 69, sports a wide, infectious smile and an ivory-colored cowboy hat as he leads Joyce, 65, in a dance around the perimeter of the musicians, who sit in metal folding chairs in a semicircle. The Eversons try to dance two or three times a week.

    Jim says the Trails Center is one of the best places he can think of to go.

    ‘‘There aren’t enough people that know about it,’’ he says. ‘‘I spread the word when I can.’’

    During their frequent trips to Iowa, the Eversons might fill up for gas in Iowa or grab a bite to eat before they go home — spending money in Iowa they could have spent in their home state.

    Highlighting the potential for day trips like the Trail Center was part of the reason behind Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson’s recent ‘‘Rediscover Iowa Tour’’ that took her to 18 communities during a four-day tour of the state, including Council Bluffs.

    Pederson dished ice cream in Le-Mars, home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream and self-proclaimed ice cream capital of the world, toured the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque and tossed out the first pitch at a Burlington Bee’s game — small but fun trips she said families could easily re-create.

    ‘‘These are trips where they can get real value,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re trying to change the landscape, and see what is going on.’’

    Under Pederson and Gov. Tom Vilsack, changing the landscape has meant finding money for programs like the Vision Iowa program, which fronts some state money — about $12.5 million this year — working with communities to reinvest in attractions and beautification projects.

    Vision Iowa money has helped pay for a diverse collection of Iowa attractions, including the River Museum in Dubuque and renovations to the Bee’s stadium in Burlington. It also has helped to supplement a $3.4 million dollar tourism budget that has actually decreased in recent years.

    The state also worked to give Iowa tourism a strong online component, making versions of all of the state’s tourism materials available at

    The efforts so far have seemingly been successful.

    In October, the state announced that travel expenditures in Iowa reached $5 billion in 2004 — the most recent numbers available. That’s an increase of 8.3 percent from 2003, nearly 2 percent higher than that national increase of 6.8 percent.