New CVB president touts regionalism, projects

by Tim Kenyon

LINN COUNTY – Marilee Fowler’s experience with major tourism-related construction projects is about to expand.

In Ms. Fowler’s new job as Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau president, she is expected to face a similar situation to the one she left as executive director of the CVB in Evansville, Ind.

Cedar Rapids leaders are anticipating federal approval soon for about $35 million in funds to go toward an estimated $52 million makeover of the U.S. Cellular Center’s arena along with an addition of an adjacent convention center.

Ms. Fowler took a leadership role in the recent planning of a new arena, convention center and hotel now under construction in Evansville, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel wrote in a recent letter to Cedar Rapids CVB board Chairman Josh Moore.

The $127.5 million downtown Evansville project “will be the cornerstone for future downtown growth and development and expand the opportunity to bring additional visitors to Evansville,” Mr. Weinzapfel wrote.

His letter also noted his city reported the best year for tourism in hosting 179 groups with 122,381 attendees that filled 95,000 hotel rooms.

Ms. Fowler returned to Cedar Rapids last week to meet more community leaders and the media after accepting the president’s role March 19.

She said she is eager to help lead the CVB into a new era when she begins daily duties April 6.

“I’m excited to get started and it’s the right time for a new project like the events center,” Ms. Fowler said.

She visited briefly with Mayor Ron Corbett last week.

“I felt very comfortable with him. When you are part of a leadership change, you need to have the mayor behind you,” she said.

She replaces Bob Buntz, the interim CVB director since Tim Boyle left Dec. 31. She spent the past eight years as the Evansville CVB director.

Her experience in promoting river town areas and regional CVBs were two factors noticed by the Cedar Rapids CVB search panel.

Besides a very similar population, she said a strong regionalism approach, reputation for strong higher education and balanced marketing target aimed at community-neighborhood participation, youth sports and out-of-town visitors are other commonalities between the Evansville and Cedar Rapids CVBs and regions.

Ms. Fowler’s knowledge of working on a different hotel/motel tax breakdown will be helpful as changes are anticipated and greater competition is expected for those funds in Cedar Rapids with pending expansion of the downtown U.S. Cellular Center with a convention center, said Kari Stillman, a member of the search panel that hired Ms. Fowler.

 The Evansville CVB hotel-motel tax revenue divided into three pots: the CVB and its marketing, convention operations and the biggest piece marked for brick and mortar tourism projects.

A $1.6 million Goebel Soccer Complex and a $2.5 million train museum project are two successful goals under that area Ms. Fowler noted that resulted from a commitment to diversify area attractions.

A proposal in Iowa to allow cities to increase hotel/motel taxes from 7 percent to 9 percent fell through last week in the state House of Representatives.

Hotel/motel taxes generate about $2.5 million annually in Cedar Rapids. City Manager Jim Prosser has said the city would need about half of that to finance a bond sale for producing money for the city’s local $17 million match in the proposed expanded Cellular Center.

Thus, the competition for motel/hotel taxes becomes more competitive and challenging for groups seeking future funds from it, something Ms. Fowler will deal with in her new role.

Ms. Fowler said keeping the locals happy is another item on her to-do list.
Promoting within and drawing interest of Cedar Rapids area residents and businesses will be a priority for her.

“It’s important that you nurture the local community of families, friends and business acquaintances,” she said, noting the relationship works to benefit both sides.

In Evansville, she recognized local volunteers in a “hospitality heroes” program. People were honored for their contributions in ways such as a night in the spotlight at the local minor league baseball team’s game.

She also understands her community involvement will play a part in being accepted and networking. She was president of the Evansville Rotary Club, the WNIN Public Television and Radio board, Leadership Evansville and the Southwest Indiana Arts Council.

Evansville’s near proximity to Illinois and Kentucky lent to a triangular regional partnership of CVBs, she said.

She wants to strengthen ties between the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area CVBs.

 “I’m a big fan of regionalism. No one place is an island. Partnering with other Corridor communities, especially with Iowa City, is a must,” Ms. Fowler said.

In the 15 years before her most recent job, she led the CVBs at Coronado, Colo., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Dubuque.

She is quick to say she is happy to be “home again” in Iowa and near her two daughters and two grandchildren in Ankeny.  

Nancy Landess, Iowa tourism manager, said she has known Ms. Fowler for many years.

“We are fortunate to have her back in Iowa,” she said. “She brings some excellent experience to the position in Cedar Rapids and also has good relationships with others in the industry in Iowa. I look forward to working with Marilee again.”

Other CVB presidential search panel members were executive panel members Lisa Goodwin, Roy Nowers, Josh Moore, Sondy Daggett, Brucemore Executive Director Jim Kern, U.S. Cellular Center Executive Director Scott Schoenike and Chris Overturf, a CVB board member.  

The Search Wide hospitality executive hiring firm, based in Stillwater, Minn., provided assistance and candidates for the panel to consider.