BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – What started as a way to give area residents a look inside a shuttered old prison, has become an event that is drawing regional attention and has planners overwhelmed with inquiries.
On Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Iowa State Penitentiary officials and volunteers will give people 30 to 35 minute tours of the oldest maximum security prison west of the Mississippi, but according to local economic officials, the event may be bigger than anyone expected and now prison staff is estimating thousands of people may descend on Fort Madison to take advantage of the tours.
ISP officials are requesting all attendees bring a non-perishable food item to donate to the local food pantry. Food pantry officials will also be on hand for cash donations.
Local media was used to invite people out to the prison, but people from all over the Midwest have heard about the tours over social media and have turned an eye to Fort Madison.
Maggie Guzman, administrative assistant at Fort Madison Partners, said people have been calling several times a day looking for accommodations and information about the city.
“Fort Madison Partners has been receiving several phone calls a day this week from individuals in the tri-state area who are extremely excited about the opportunity to go into the prison this Sunday,” she said.
“We have provided hotel, business, and restaurant information to each of these callers and promoting activities that they can partake in while visiting Fort Madison. This is a great opportunity for our businesses, hotels, and restaurants to welcome visitors from different towns who will be staying the night, or even just a couple of hours.”
Jean Peiton, tourism and marketing coordinator for the City of Fort Madison has been monitoring social media sites for interest in the prison tour and wants to “commandeer” the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s hashtag #ThisIsIowa.
Peiton says using the social media tags will show the state the high level of regional, and potentially national, interest in preserving the prison.
“The use of the social media hash tags is to make sure that those who are engaged with the prison through the non-profit’s Facebook page, connect to the IEDA office and show the widespread interest in the prison. They have a specific hash tag #ThisIsIowa that they use to track and promote tourism,” she said.
“If we in effect ‘commandeer’ their hash tag and use it, they will see the amount of traffic and interest there is. The original press release that DOC produced has generated over 70,000 engagements. This is what they call ‘organic’ engagements in the social media world. There was some boosting of posts but the paid ads only resulted in a little over 2,000 click throughs. The event post has had over 1,000 people who have said they are coming and over 3,000 who said that ‘maybe’ they would come. If all the visitors and even those who can’t make it also use the hash tags, it will show the state just how interested the public is.”
Peiton said visitors should also tag #HISP, which represents Historic Iowa State Penitentiary and allows local tracking of posts, pictures, numbers, etc to use at future planning sessions for repurposing the facility.
“The sheer number of people that have responded is a little intimidating. But what a good ‘problem’ to have. Too many people coming to Fort Madison. In all actuality, I think it is a wonderful thing. This is literally the citizenry playing an important part in telling the state to save our prison,” Peiton said.