Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - City of literature moves forward with organization

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View" July 18, 2009)

With the incorporation of a new non-profit organization, local leaders have reached the next stage of planning in terms of how the community should build on UNESCO's decision to recognize Iowa City as an international City of Literature. International Writing Program Director Christopher Merrill, who will serve as the new organization's president, will provide an update during his talk at the Iowa City Book Festival at 2 p.m. today in the University of Iowa Main Library.

The most important feature of the new organization is that its board of directors will include representatives from the local major stakeholders who stand to benefit from the organization's success -- a list that includes UI, Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Johnson County, the Chamber of Commerce and the Conventional and Visitors Bureau.

There had been some concerns early on that Iowa City would try to claim this honor solely for itself. Besides creating an unnecessary turf war with the university and other local governments, devoting this non-profit organization solely to Iowa City's interests would have missed the broader vision -- not to mention potential federal grant money -- opened up by the UNESCO designation.

"We're looking forward to doing something on a bigger scale," said Iowa City Public Library Director Susan Craig, who will serve as the organization's vice president for the first year. "The ideas that are coming out of people are not just regional in scope -- and by regional I mean 'Midwest.' We want to build an organization that attracts attention around the country and around the world. The plans are very ambitious, but I think they can be fulfilled."

Unlike the other two UNESCO-designated cities of literature -- Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia -- Iowa City doesn't have enough of a donor base to support these projects on its own. Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Conventional and Visitors Bureau, said the organization already has $100,000 committed -- more than a third of its goal of $250,000. So far the public-private mix is lopsided by the money committed by the cities and UI, but the organization is aggressively going after more private donations and foundation grants. And to quality for those grants, the organization needs to look far beyond the local area.

"This is not only a brand that Iowa City should run with and celebrate itself," Schamberger said, "it's also something the state should take ownership of."

If the value of the UNESCO designation is going to be appreciated by people outside of the Iowa City area, Iowa City needs to avoid territorially viewing it as a mere pat on the back for our little Athens of the Midwest.

"It's an honor for the state as a whole," Craig said. "The designation and the intensity of literary effort, accomplishment and celebration that happens in Johnson County reflect very well on the state of Iowa. People are starting to take notice of Iowa after our role in the presidential election and the recent ruling about marriage equality. I'm not putting the City of Literature status on same level as those other two factors, but people are noticing that interesting things are happening in Iowa."

With one book festival under its belt, the organization's leaders now need to focus on hiring a director capable of providing clear evidence of progress over the next two years.

We do want this organization to hold successful events that help sustain and market the remarkable combination of resources that have made Iowa a site of great writing for nearly a century. But we also want those events to provide tangible benefits to the local economy by helping to put heads on pillows and butts in seats.

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