Originally printed April 24, 2010.
Back in 2001, when Josh Schamberger first took over as president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the organization had a $330,000 budget for its efforts to attract people to the local area.
Today, the bureau has an annual budget of $1.2 million — with more than half coming from hotel/motel taxes, more than a third coming from visitor guide and program revenue and more than a tenth coming from the dues of its 304 members. And with the growth of the bureau's responsibilities, Schamberger himself has become a primary — sometimes even necessary — conduit for change and collaboration in the cultural, business, athletic and even literary sectors of the Iowa City/Coralville area.
"He is the key or the spark of the region," said Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth. "He brings so much enthusiasm to whatever he does. And he tackles ideas that no one else will do."
"He has been very instrumental at being the catalyst for greater collaboration," said Rick Klatt, associate director for external affairs for UI athletics.
"He has a catholic (with a small 'c') sensibility about him in which he is able to unite people from all walks of life," said Christopher Merrill, director of the UI International Writing Program and board member for the UNESCO City of Literature.
'A new thing'
Schamberger — a self-described military "brat" who moved often as a child — took the helm of the Iowa City/Coralville area bureau after working for a few years in the Cedar Rapids bureau. In that capacity, he got to know Wendy Ford, the then president of the Iowa City/Coralville bureau, and recognized a golden opportunity when Ford decided to move on to other jobs.
"It's a highly visible position," said Ford, now the director of economic development for Iowa City. "I led the CVB from its infancy through adolescence. And it was well situated for its next stage of life. Josh has done a superb job ... partly because of his youth, experience and drive to make something happen."
It was also good timing on Schamberger's part because convention and visitors bureaus were going through a period of evolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"Bureaus were still kind of a new thing," Ford said. "They were becoming more independent of the chambers and other organizations that founded them."
And the then 27-year-old Schamberger seemed full of energy to transform his position and his bureau into a more integral component of how things get done in the Iowa City area.
Lengthening the leash
Schamberger is clear that any success he has had is because of his staff and his board — "They realized early on that they could lengthen my leash and let me run" — as well as the thousands of volunteers that he's worked with over the years.
"Very early in his tenure here you could tell that he was going to be a key person for the region," Hayworth said.
Schamberger quickly was instrumental in forming and serving as president of the Johnson County Cultural Alliance. That alliance — which eventually merged with the Linn County group to become the Iowa Cultural Corridor Alliance — brought together more than 50 area organizations of theater, music, dance, visual arts, libraries, recreation complexes and museums. And its success caught the attention of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board, which named Schamberger as a finalist for the 2003 Person of the Year.
With that early success, Schamberger also saw an opportunity to expand the role of his bureau by asking Coralville to purchase the old Country Kitchen restaurant and allow the bureau to use it as a gateway to Iowa City/Coralville area. When Coralville agreed in 2004, the bureau's office space nearly doubled from about 2,200-square-feet — a little smaller than a tennis court — to nearly 4,200-square-feet, or slightly smaller than a basketball court.
"That's a prime example of Josh's approach," Hayworth said. "He was very creative ... and approached us by telling us how he could serve the region better if we would come up with that location."
Herky on Parade
And it was also about that same time when Schamberger's growing connections with UI athletics officials led to the idea of having local groups sponsor Herky statues that would be decorated and placed around the Iowa City/Coralville area.
The experience of coordinating between the UI athletics department, the city governments and the artistic community allowed Schamberger to learn how to navigate through municipal and institutional red tape to bring together the right people to create a fun, quirky program that would help drive local tourism while still directly benefiting the sponsoring groups.
"Herky on Parade was the most tangible evidence of the partnership," said Klatt. "It was not the first thing we did together, but it was so large and so successful that it spoke to the power of the two organizations."
And Schamberger has made use of those skills over and over again from Herky on Parade to Hawkeye Express to Fry Fest.
"During the Fry Fest announcement, Gary Barta said of Josh and Kelly (Hayworth), 'Everything we touch together turns gold,'" Klatt said. "Not everything does that. But clearly we have more successes than disappointments."
Vision and leadership
Although he repeatedly credits his board, staff and volunteers, Schamberger's current role as a go-to person for community input comes more from his personal vision and leadership than from his day job.
"When I have an idea, he's the kind of guy I visit with and bounce things off of," said Klatt, "He has a marketing mind to him and a great appreciation for how athletics fits into the community."
"When I'm approaching an idea from an educational perspective, I want him involved," said Patti Fields, president of the Iowa City School Board and director of community impact for the United Way of Johnson County. "When I'm doing from the perspective of community impact, I want him involved."
And Schamberger succeeds, in part, because he manages to advance a clear vision in a way that doesn't come across as just someone having an agenda.
"He has an ability to get people going in the same direction and let the folks who know what they are doing do what they think they should do," said Bruce Wheaton, co-founder of Riverside Theatre and former director of the University of Iowa's research park.
But it's not enough simply to ensure that all the stakeholders are at the table. Without strong leadership, such discussions can devolve into turf wars or pontification sessions.
"There's an old commercial in which a man says, 'We don't actually do what we propose — we just propose it,'" said Dave Jacoby, former member of the Coralville City Council and current member of the Iowa House of Representatives. "Well, Josh does both. He proposes, and he gets it done."
Catching the next wave
Although not everything that he touches has turned to gold, Schamberger has shown an ability to learn from failed opportunities and, like the avid surfer he is, move on to catch the next big wave.
For example, when Coralville finally severed ties with the proposals for an indoor rain forest as a main attractor for the Iowa River Landing district, Schamberger and others studied those mistakes carefully while coming up with proposals for a new attractor. Because the rain forest project failed to include sufficient community input, they made sure any new project would need to be developed through a series of community group meetings. Because the rain forest involved plunking an alien environment into the middle of the heartland, they made sure any new project would need to be considered intrinsic to the region.
It was largely because of that thoughtful, creative and collaborative process that the Press-Citizen Editorial Board named Schamberger as a finalist for Person of the Year in 2007.
However, the public rollout for the project that emerged from the planning process — the Stories Project — happened on nearly the same day that Coralville started sandbagging for the rising floodwaters of 2008. Schamberger said that the plans for Stories are on hold until Coralville implements many of its flood mitigation efforts and until the national economy begins to recover.
But Schamberger has channeled all that energy and vision from the Stories project into ensuring that Iowa City's UNESCO designation as a City of Literature is something that the whole area — the whole state — can build on. He's helping to ensure that, what could otherwise be just a nice award, actually becomes something that attract more heads on pillows and butts in seats.
"I can tell you from the perspective of UNESCO, he has been a driving force," said Merrill, who was instrumental in persuading UNESCO to recognize Iowa City's literary history, "someone who has been diligent about bringing as many stakeholders to the table as possible and truly helping us to create a town-gown partnership that will extend farther."
Selling the community
Schamberger, if nothing else, fully recognizes that his job is to sell the Iowa City/Coralville area to outsiders.
And the first person to whom Schamberger had to sell the community was himself.
After moving often during his childhood, Schamberger calls San Diego, Calif., his hometown. But his years in landlocked Iowa have led him to appreciate the Midwest's commitment to family and community.
And it's that same commitment that has allowed Schamberger to be an effective evangelist for the cultural corridor that he envisions.
"He knows that his job is to promote the community in a way that people will want either to visit here or to live here," said Fields. "He has the ability to project how great this place is — whether it's for a few days or for a lifetime."
And it's that commitment — coupled with his excellent salesmanship — that allows Schamberger to make it both fun and beneficial to work with him.
"I can't say enough about what a great job he does," said Hayworth. "He makes it work because he's adds a fun aspect to it. You want to work with him because you know his track record. You know you're going to have a good time and that great benefits are going to come out of it."
"I had so much fun working with him, because he gets it," said Merrill. "He's energetic. He has good ideas. And he makes things happen. ... If there really is somebody who thinks about the welfare of the entire community, it's Josh."