“This seems too good to be true.” That’s what Marion City Manager, Ryan Waller, kept saying to himself during his visits and interview process. He canvassed the downtown, incognito with his wife, doing a little reconnaissance. He’d chat up the people he found: the bartender and the shop owner. He asked about the city– their vision and plans. “It was incredible,” he says, “because they were like walking billboards for the community. They could explain everything that was happening. They could explain the vision.”
Waller’s been in his role as City Manager just over a year now, and he says that initial sentiment still holds true: “You’re just kind of waiting for somebody to pinch you and make sure you’re not dreaming because Marion is a very special place… it’s about the people. It’s about the positivity. They are proud of their community and they are proud of the progress that’s being made.”
Located in Linn County in east central Iowa, Marion’s population is nearing 43,000. One of the fastest growing cities in the state of Iowa, it’s grown a whopping 58% since 2000. It’s close to Cedar Rapids, and just north of Iowa City.
“We work very hard at placemaking,” Mayor of Marion, Nick AbouAssaly notes. “Our city is at the forefront of creating an amazing quality of life for people… We see the importance of quality of place to the success of a community and to attracting people and business and workforce.”
Part of that quality of space is found in Marion’s 600 acres of parks and trails. But what’s really interesting about Marion is their focus on incorporating the arts whenever they can. “We focus a lot on public art and creating spaces where people want to be,” AbouAssaly says. They have a sculpture trail, an award-winning amphitheater that hosts free entertainment all summer long (the stage cover is itself a massive sculpture along the sculpture trail), a community orchard, public gardens, and ball fields. “The parks are just another welcoming place for the community,” comments AbouAssaly. “Our largest park features many acres of prairie and has become an urban refuge where people go to have peace and relax.”
“We’ve made great progress in the last few years in creating really amazing spaces where people can be together, experience community, experience the outdoors, experience art, and just enjoy their lives,” adds AbouAssaly.
Leading by Example
The growth that’s happened here– in population and in usable, attractive spaces– is, quite frankly, a masterclass for city leaders in how to create a place people want to be.
AbouAsssaly believes it starts with the leadership. “I think what really makes Marion special are the leaders who are dedicated to making it a standout community,” he explains. “The city organization is focused on providing high quality services to the residents. That’s our main job. But we go beyond that in Marion: our city is really invested in giving people an amazing quality of life. I mean, that drives everything that we do. We are creating better opportunities for people. For all people– of all ages, of all backgrounds– to be able to achieve whatever goals they have for themselves in the community from recreational and educational opportunities to opportunities to experience community and art. We focus a lot on that and we engage and collaborate with community partners in making it all happen.”
Back in 2009, Mayor AbouAssaly wrote a letter to the community, outlining his vision for Marion to become the jewel of the region. “And here we are in 2023,” Waller says, “implementing that vision.” That people-first approach starts with community vision sessions. Working with the Chamber of Commerce, the city asks the community what they want, what they think, and what they dream things could be.
“Our elected officials make themselves available to interact with the community members. They are responding to questions that they’re seeing on social media. They are talking about and promoting the vision,” Waller adds. “City Council members hold weekly office hours at the public library and summer farmers markets.” On top of that, Marion surveys its residents every other year, asking for feedback. “We are strategic about using that data,” Waller continues, “to help inform the strategic plan, and having that help inform the budget… so everything that we’re doing is going back to reinforcing the vision.”
This approach builds trust. It’s transparent. It gives the community members a sense of ownership. “They have buy-in,” AbouAssaly says, “and it’s helped to create a positive outlook in the community so the community is supportive of the city’s direction. It’s created an amazing vibe in the community where people, from life-long residents to newcomers, are proud of where they live.”
In the Eye of a Hurricane
That leadership was put to the test in August of 2020. Six months into the global pandemic, Marion faced a new storm: a derecho. In layman’s terms, that’s an inland hurricane, with winds of up to 140 miles per hour. “It devastated our community,” AbouAssaly shares. It caused billions of dollars in damage. Electricity was out for weeks. “Nearly every building or home sustained damage. We lost 40% of trees on public land and a large percentage of our overall tree canopy,” he adds. “Every resident immediately needed assistance.”
“I’m proud of how our city showed the world who we are in the face of adversity. Between the humanitarian response and the cleanup, we demonstrated our resilience and unity and were able to help people and businesses recover successfully. With this natural disaster coming on top of the pandemic, I felt as though I had been training my entire life to lead our community through the challenges,” comments AbouAssaly. “I’m grateful to have been surrounded by a team of amazing leaders who helped to shoulder the heavy responsibility.”
“Our motto is Reach Higher… and we take that seriously,” AbouAssaly explains. “It’s not just a marketing thing. We reach higher in everything that we do to help our city achieve its fullest potential… I think that’s what drives a lot of what we do. All the people who are in leadership positions in the community… We all see that the city has such great potential to be the best place in Iowa to raise a family and to grow a business.”
“And that’s the neat thing about that tagline: it’s proactive, it’s aspirational,” continues AbouAssaly. “It doesn’t describe us. It actually says, ‘we’re going to do something.’ It tells us to ask for the best. To expect the best from ourselves and from others who want to do projects here and to give our community the best.”
Fasten Your Seatbelts
Reaching that higher standard, as of late, has been quite the ride. “Fasten your seatbelt,” AbouAssaly laughs. The project list in Marion is enough to give anyone whiplash. It’s impressive and it is long.
For starters, Marion just opened a brand new library. “It is the prototype for the libraries of the future,” boasts AbouAssaly. There is a recording studio, an art studio, a demonstration kitchen, and a gaming room. The children’s area has a play structure and a large Lite-Brite wall. “You can check out all sorts of things from kitchen equipment to vinyl records. There’s a 3D printer and a quilting machine. There’s an entire teen area where teens can be themselves…There’s so much in this library, and it’s got something for everyone. It’s a true community center that provides all people with access and we’re so proud of it,” says AbouAssaly.
The new YMCA in Marion was a partnership between the city of Marion and the YMCA. The old YMCA was too small and in disrepair. “Rather than having two facilities being built and duplicating services,” AbouAssaly explains, “We partnered with them.” Marion invested $7.2 million dollars into a new 70,000 square foot YMCA and merged some of the city’s rec programs with the YMCA’s.
“It’s a beautiful facility,” he says. “It has a recreational pool and a lap pool. It’s become a model that community leaders from throughout the state are visiting as they plan their own similar projects.”
Marion also recently completed a two year project where they rebuilt the main street and redid the streetscape and sidewalks. They built a new pedestrian plaza, complete with fire tables and seating areas. “It looks beautiful,” AbouAssaly gushes.
That segues right into the Uptown Artway, a project completed in 2015. Marion took an alley – a dirty, unused alley in the central business district – and turned it into yet another gathering space. With help from the Chamber of Commerce, Marion received a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America. Along with a contribution from the city and some additional fundraising, they went to work on the million dollar project. The dumpsters were replaced with nine large sculptures. There’s even a stage. Soon enough, restaurants and bars opened outdoor seating spaces on the Artway. “When you talk about placemaking… we took this unused space in the heart of our downtown and made it a place people want to be,” AbouAssaly notes.
A few other recent projects include a skate park, a soccer mini-pitch, pickleball courts, an inclusive playground and several new parks. Next on the agenda is another plaza in the main square, which will include an ice skating loop, big enough to accommodate 200 people. This area will also feature artwork, fire tables, water features, and more seating.
AbouAssaly also reveals plans are in the works for a $25-$30 million dollar city-owned water park, featuring a wave pool, ninja warrior course, as well as other amenities.
Holding on to the Past
And while Marion certainly showcases all of these new, modern spaces, they do pay homage to their history, too. Historic preservation, in fact, is also one of their strategic goals. “We recognize the importance of historic buildings in defining the soul and unique characteristics of any community,” AbouAsssaly says. City leaders recently were able to save a historic church building from demolition. They are working on a plan for restoration and repurposing the space for the community.
Likewise, they just opened a new pedestrian bridge to replace an older bridge at the front door of the community. In true Marion form, the new bridge is a work of art, designed by a local sculptor artist. And a nearby, more historic bridge was also repurposed and reassembled in a theme celebrating their railroad heritage.
“Marion has a rich history,” AbouAssaly says. “We were a railroad town up until the 1970s, where the passenger trains came through. We no longer have the railroad, but a lot of that history remains.”
Marion’s historic downtown hosts a Christmas tree lighting on the first Friday in December each year. “I’ve heard a hundred people say it was like a scene out of a Hallmark movie,” AbouAssaly laughs. “It’s just a really beautiful downtown.” Marion invested in a 30-foot tree that lights up to music. Santa also arrived via firetruck.
If it sounds too good to be true, Waller insists that it’s not. Marion just hired a new fire chief from Kansas, with no previous connections to Iowa. Like Waller, he continues to often muse, Is this place for real? It’s too good to be true.
Marion is the real deal. “We’re building a legacy,” Waller says.
It’s the place people want to be.