MONTROSE - What began as a look at how Fort Madison can re-energize its tourism efforts has turned into a countywide look at the industry.
Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld convened a panel of business and industry leaders who have a stake in reshaping the tourism model in Lee County, at the Lee County Economic Development Group's offices in Montrose last week.
The group consisted of advocates and officials from Keokuk, Fort Madison, and Lee County and was facilitated by Chelsey Lerud, executive director of Iowa Travel Industry Partners. Lerud, the former director of the Greater Burlington Convention and Visitors Bureau, stepped on with Iowa Travel Industry Partners as interim director in 2021 and was named to her current post this year.
She served with the Burlington tourism group beginning in 2014.
Mohrfeld said the city's previous tourism efforts under Jean Peiton, a part-time tourism coordinator with the city, were "unguided, unsupervised, and ineffective."
"I'm going to say that as bluntly as I can. Good person but in the wrong seat," Mohrfeld said. "When she decided to move on we looked at that and said it does not make sense to keep doing the same things if we want different results."
Mohrfeld said conversations began with the Fort Madison Area Chamber of Commerce and other people around the industry. He said everybody had ideas, but there was nothing comprehensive.
"That brought us to the concept of sitting down and maybe looking a little more strategically at what we want to be when we grow up."
Prior to the meeting, Mohrfeld and LeRud sat down and put together a list of stakeholders who could help create a new look.
He said the committee is not about preconceived notions and said he wasn't trying to promote a Fort Madison tourism initiative as much as what a southeast Iowa initiative should be.
"I don't know what that is and that's why we're here today," he said.
Kirk Brandenburger, the director of the Keokuk Area Convention and Tourism Bureau, said he was glad to be invited to the event, but said he didn't know about the meeting until about 10 days beforehand.
"I wasn't invited to this table until last Tuesday, officially. So I'm kind of an outsider and I'm going to try not to say much because I wasn't needed to."
He said tourism people have worked together in the county for more than 20 years.
"The tourism people have. The rest of you have not."
He mentioned the collaborative efforts in previous years of Henry County, Des Moines County, Villages of Van Buren, Lee County, and Hancock County. Now he said it's down to just Lee and Hancock counties in the Lake Cooper Loop program.
Brandenburger said he was looking for unity from everyone, not just tourism officials.
"I want to see everyone jump on board this train."
Chi Eastin, manager of the Kingsley Inn in Fort Madison, and creator of the Lake Cooper Loop tourism event, said efforts need direction.
"We need leadership. We need direction. We need a lot of tourism items quickly - as fast as possible," she said. "I'm in the trenches every day, taking steps and speaking with visitors, what they enjoyed most and what they would like to see. I'm in there every day asking questions and documenting everything."
She said people are moving around again after the pandemic and the area has everything they need, they just have to "get it together" and "get it out there".
The group broke into several small group efforts focused on defining a regional tourism approach. After several presentations, conversations turned toward a countywide tourism structure with the possibility of a county tourism director functioning out of a central location.
Lerud suggested the panel meet at least two more times to fine tune the structures and make possible recommendations to other area groups about the findings and recommendations.
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