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Progress, potential of Marshalltown celebrated during annual Chamber banquet

T-R PHOTOS BY ROBERT MAHARRY — Keynote speaker Andrew Davis, an author, documentarian and TV producer, addresses the audience during the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce’s 126th annual banquet at Midnight Garden on Thursday evening.

Keynote speaker Andrew Davis encouraged the leaders and residents of the community to stake their claim and find their niche as part of his keynote address during the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce’s 126th annual banquet at Midnight Gardens on Thursday night.

After dinner was served and drinks were acquired, Chamber President/CEO John Hall kicked off the event with a recognition of elected officials in the audience as well as the Chamber’s staff and board of directors before segueing into a recap of the previous year. Some of the points he highlighted were the organization’s strong membership numbers, events, media partnerships, the attraction of new businesses through economic development efforts including the first ever certified site in Marshalltown and support of existing employers within the community.

“The economic landscape in Marshalltown is evolving, and it’s exciting to see our vision for a prosperous community come to fruition,” Hall said.

Tourism continues to be a point of pride under the leadership of Tourism Director Dylan Does as Marshalltown has landed a number of statewide sports, conferences and corporate events that bring visitors here from both near and far. Hall also spoke highly of the revamped Leadership Marshalltown course, which just wrapped up its second iteration, and announced that Marshalltown has been selected as a pilot community for the state of Iowa’s new talent attraction program.

Finally, he provided an update on the status of creative placemaking efforts within the Linn Creek District and the $2 million Destination Iowa grant the city received for the water plaza, trailhead, trail bridge and the Martha-Ellen Tye Playhouse.

After serving as chair of the Chamber board of directors for the last year, Erin McGregor, right, pictured with Chamber President/CEO John Hall, left, received the Chairman’s Award during Thursday night’s annual banquet.

“The achievements we get to celebrate tonight are the result of our shared vision, collaboration and unwavering dedication to the betterment of Marshalltown. As we look to the future, let’s continue to build on this momentum, fostering an environment of innovation, inclusivity and prosperity. Together, we can make Marshalltown an even greater place to learn, to live, to work and to visit,” Hall said. “Thank you for being here tonight, and thank you for your continued support and partnership.”

Hall then introduced Davis, a bestselling author and coffee enthusiast who has written documentary films, produced for NBC, worked for the Muppets and MTV, started and sold a marketing company and appeared on “The Today Show.” Davis commented that Marshalltown “had something special,” and residents should be proud of their community.

With the formalities out of the way, he dove into the crux of his address: that the world is in a state of “information overload,” and not all of it is worth consuming. He cited the fact that there are 17 new web pages published every second and humorously recounted the explosion of television networks since the 1990s as opposed to the old days of a single newspaper or local radio station.

The key, he said, is cutting through the clutter and creating a sense of place, and Davis ran through the top seven ways people describe the places they live, work and play: attractions, corporations, celebrities, novelties, resources, geography, and, more than any other, the past. In Marshalltown, he cited the example of Fisher Controls, which is now part of the larger Emerson corporation, formerly being headquartered here.

“The past is an easy scapegoat for really helping us transform the way we talk about our place. It’s easy to talk about the place,” Davis said. “We need to transform the way we describe the place we live and work and play in a way that creates an emotional connection with the people we’re talking about.”

From left to right, Karl of Marshalltown General Manager Aaron Axtell, Parts Manager Mark Weitzell, General Sales Manager John German and Service Manager Jared Johnston accepted the Community Impact Award at the Chamber’s annual banquet on Thursday.

To do that, “location envy” must be created, which he described as the “irrational” idea that one’s success is defined by the place where they live, work or play. Davis then delved into the first of several stories about towns off the beaten path where unique ideas have flourished, using the community of Hamilton — the birthplace of James Cash “J.C.” Penney — in northwest Missouri as the first example. There, he met Missouri Star Quilt Company Owner Jenny Doan, who dreamed of turning Hamilton into “The Disneyland of quilting,” Davis admitted it sounded ridiculous to him initially, but before long, Doan started making quilting videos on YouTube and steadily built a large following with hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

From there, Doan and her son began placing ads on YouTube with several nods to the small-town quirks of Hamilton.

“Jenny Doan knows that you have to market the place you do business more than the business you do, not just to everybody outside of it but also to everybody inside,” Davis said. “She’s proud of what Hamilton is, and she uses it very heavily in the way she markets. And here’s what happened: people started showing up.”

Suddenly, Hamilton became a destination, and today, Doan is the largest employer in Caldwell County with over 250 workers, did $158 million in sales in 2023 and has catalyzed a revitalization of the community along with a wave of new businesses. Davis posed the question to the audience of what Marshalltown could become the capital of in the future, the same way Hamilton became a hotbed for quilting, and dove into the economics of “staking your claim.”

Through his research, he determined that when comparing 27 pairs of similarly sized cities with comparable demographics, education, geography and resources, those that had a claim generated $2.9 billion more annually than those without one.

“Could it be that easy? I don’t know. I think the question is ‘Can we afford not to stake the claim?’ We’ve gotta start really thinking about the impact it could have,” Davis said.

Doan is a prime example of the visionaries that communities need to transform themselves into the places they want to be, he added.

“It’s time to start reimagining. What does the next version of the future look like? And it might be why we got stuck in the past talking about what we used to be. Instead, we need to generate the next crazy vision and support those visionaries we know,” he said. “What if we embrace the visionaries in our midst, the ones that are here already in Marshalltown that have staked their family’s life, their whole idea of what the future could look like, right here already? They’ve invested in the community, now it’s time to hear the rest of their story.”

Davis went on to share more off the beaten path success stories, like that of Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish entrepreneur who went to college in upstate New York and decided to buy a milk factory Kraft was shutting down in Batavia. It became Chobani Yogurt, which is now worth $2.1 billion.

“Get rich, target a niche” was the message he hoped to share, and Davis hoped Marshalltown would find its own Greek yogurt.

Another example was Muscle Shoals, a small town tucked in the northwest corner of Alabama that became internationally renowned as the home of FAME Studios after Aretha Franklin put it on the map in the 1960s — Davis called it a case of “a myth transforming a place” as producer Rick Hall told musicians the “Singing” Tennessee River would speak to them before they recorded.

Artists like Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and the Allman Brothers Band recorded there, and the session players known as the Swampers are immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama.” Its population has more than quadrupled over the last 60 years, the studio is still used to this day and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is located there.

“All it took was one great story, so what if we uncover those stories? What if we find those stories and start telling them? How can we create that mythical sense of place?” Davis asked.

The final story was about the revitalization and rebirth of Shinola luxury watches in Detroit, with $151 million in in-store retail sales in 2023 and a mission statement dedicated to rebuilding American manufacturing.

“Every idea starts as a crazy idea. They’re only normalized when everybody believes in them. So Marshalltown is the capital of ‘I don’t know.’ But I know you’ll figure it out,” Davis said. “Stake your claim.”

Hall reclaimed the microphone and suggested a few claims Marshalltown could stake, including the flow control valve capital of the world, the heating and cooling capital of the U.S., the American-made hand tool capital of the world, the virtual reality capital of the Midwest, or his personal favorite (borrowed from Does) in a nod to the recent eSports tournaments, “The Mecca of Mario.”

Chamber Board Chair Erin McGregor then presented the 2024 Community Impact Award to Karl Auto Group, recognizing the company for its massive investment of around $20 million in its facilities on the north side of Marshalltown, more than quadrupling their square footage and almost doubling the number of employees.

“Karl Auto Group has changed the landscape of our community in a dramatic way on the north corridor,” McGregor said.

Accepting the award on behalf of Karl were General Manager Aaron Axtell, Parts Manager Mark Weitzell, General Sales Manager John German and Service Manager Jared Johnston, and Axtell thanked the Chamber for the award while reiterating his commitment to making Karl the best car dealer in the state during his brief remarks. Before the banquet was adjourned, McGregor herself was recognized with the Chairman’s Award for serving her one-year term as the leader of the Chamber’s Board of Directors. Come July 1, she will pass the torch to Damon Morrison.

“It’s been a great year, but I’m happy it’s over,” she said.

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Contact Robert Maharryat 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or maharry@timesrepublican.com.

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