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Using Grants to Inspire and Create Change

Marion, IA


[Intro] Welcome to chats with chambers with your hosts Patrick Kirby and Sami Bedell-Mulhern. Each week we connect and learn from executives of chambers of commerce from across the country. These short episodes will share success stories, challenges, best practices, and tips and tricks to inspire you, and provide resources for hitting your organizational goals. From recruiting new and retaining current members to finding new and creative revenue sources. You’ll hear straight from those leading chambers and communities throughout the US. Chats with chambers is proudly brought to you by the Nonprofit bootcamp. Learn more and check out the show notes for episodes at 

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] Hey, everybody, welcome to another episode of chats with chambers where we talk with leaders on what’s working for them and how they’re kind of doing things differently and helping their communities thrive. And I am so excited to be joined today by Jill Ackerman. Jill, thanks for joining me today.

[Jill Ackerman] Yeah, thanks for having me. Happy to be here.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] Yeah. So why don’t you tell people a little bit about Marion, Iowa and kind of what you are all about what you’re known for. And a little bit about your chamber?

[Jill Ackerman] Sure. Well, Marion is a community of about 42,000. In population we are located right next door to Cedar Rapids, which is our as our state’s second largest city. So we’re sort of a suburb we years ago, we’re really known as a bedroom community. And in the last 10 years, we’ve really made some great headway in building our commercial stack and getting some really cool businesses into the community where Main Street, Iowa community. So our historic downtown center is really has come a destination. And our chamber has been around a long time since 1938. I’ve been at the Chamber for 15 years. So yeah.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] 15 years with the Marion chamber. Yeah. Wow. That’s amazing.

[Jill Ackerman] Yeah, it’s been a really fun job.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] So this might be then a very loaded question. Because in the 15 years that you’ve been there, is there kind of a big win or a really big success story that you’ve been able to or project that you’ve been able to work on that you kind of love to brag on yourself a little bit about?

[Jill Ackerman] Yeah, I think probably the one of the things that I’ve been most proud of in my career is the just the community development work that we’ve been able to to work on. The state of Iowa has a program called Iowa great places and years ago, and we were just kind of struggling, our downtown was struggling. We were trying to figure out who we were as a community. We decided to try to go after the Iowa Great Places program because it was a competitive grant program. And they said, You should really do a community wide visioning process and find out what your community wants. And so we did that we actually made a trip over to another community and eastern Iowa, Dubuque, Iowa. And their leadership was awesome. They had just done a community visioning process, and they, they hired a consultant to do it. They said, here’s the steps that you need to take, we think that you can probably maybe do it on your own. So we took on that work. And we collected over 1800 ideas from our community. We took about six months, we trained outreach leaders to go and do brainstorming sessions with residents. And like I said, we collected over 1800 ideas we hired we appointed a selection committee of just a diverse cross section of our community, young old from different backgrounds. And they narrowed those 1800 ideas down to about 100. And then our community voted again, and they got it down to 30. And then the selection committee got it down to the final eight. And so we took 10 years, we’ve worked on all of those projects. They included installing splash pads, building an amphitheater, building out our Trails Network, building a new library, building a new rec center, and installing Wi Fi and all of our parks, free Wi Fi. Like I said, there were eight different ones. We got those all completed in about 10 years. Yeah, and so we did it again. And now we’ve got completed the whole process again and now we’re working on another four projects, which include a plaza project in our downtown. We have Indian Creek runs through our community so we’re building in amenities and assets into that creek. So to make it are usable. We’ve got a group that’s working on community events and food truck policy. I don’t know what my other one is, oh, we’re working on an aquatic center. Oh, cool. Yeah. So I think the value in getting your residents opinions and listening to them, really is the key to success. And obviously, having a great city council and great city staff is key as well, because they have to be able to put their dollars behind it. But it’s just really been probably our biggest success story in Marion.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] So is that something that the Chamber spearheaded, and then leverage relationships with government officials in the community to help get everybody behind?

[Jill Ackerman] Right on? Yep, that’s exactly what we did. And, you know, it also kind of provides your city government some political cover when they’re when they are deciding how to spend their capital improvement budgets, because you can always go back to those results, where we’ve gone out, we’ve systematically asked community members what they want, and they vote, you know, and and they participate, and it just really creates a clear pathway to move forward. So

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] I think what a great way to, like you said, listen to your community, build that identity that works so well, that you’re doing it again, and like how great is that just to provide that, like consistency and that faith in your business owners in your Chamber members to say like, Yeah, we did this. And now we’re not just like dropping off, we’re continuing to, to write things for you like has that helped you with kind of retention and growth of your membership as well?

[Jill Ackerman] I wonder I 100% think that it has. And I think it’s also because a lot of these are placemaking projects. It’s helped with workforce, like, people want to move here. And so I think it’s just it’s been really helpful for our community all rent also like in terms of getting money. So leveraging grant programs and things like that, if you can tell the whole story of how we’ve been doing this for the last 15 years, going out and getting our community engaged and talking about how we generate ideas, and you know, it just makes your grant application so much stronger.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] Yeah. Well, okay, that’s a huge success story. But what is something that maybe in the last year or so you’ve struggled with, or that has been a challenge for you and kind of how are you working through or finding solutions?

[Jill Ackerman] Yeah. So our chamber just like everyone else across the nation, you know, we had to survive the pandemic. And on top of that, our community in August of 20 to 2020, it was 2020 2019 or 2020, we sustained the nation’s worst thunderstorm in history. Great, Joe. Right. You’re right, Joe. And it was it was so strange, because at that time, it was like, the pandemic didn’t even exist. I mean, everybody kind of came out of their homes and their businesses. And I mean, everything was shut down. Obviously, we didn’t have power for a couple of weeks. But everybody just kind of locked arms and got their hands dirty and put worst started putting the community back together, and we lost 60% of our tree cover. It was just terrible. People had tremendous damage to their homes. There were food shortages. We couldn’t I mean, the shelves were kind of empty because of the pandemic anyway, but a lot of folks, you know, because of the loss of they lost their food because they didn’t have power we put together. We set up an emergency food pantry, we were able to feed 1000s of people out of that food pantry, we had a mall that had been kind of decommissioned that had been sold and was going to get redeveloped. And so they let us go into that empty mall for a couple of weeks and get that pantry going and it really pulled the community together. It was like such a heartwarming thing to be able to work on because we would just ask for food donations like we’d be running out of something and people would show up in droves with car loads and Van loads and semi loads of food and water for, for our community members. So that was just a really, I think we really showed who we were in Marion during that time. And it just proved that our, our residents are really all in and they’re all in about. Not only are other things that we’re working on at the Chamber, but they’re all in and they have each other’s backs, mate, and they help each other out when it’s needed. And it was awesome. So

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] when I love this kind of building on, like, that’s such a beautiful show of support just with each other. But I think just what you were speaking on through this whole episode is really just this strong relationship building that you’ve been able to do through all of these projects has really just continued to help foster that. And it sounds like the Chamber’s just a really kind of core problem. I mean, probably not the only one. But one of the big core just pillars in the community where people can come rely on trust, get support resources, no matter what, because pandemic on top of the DeRay. Joe, like that’s a lot for people to handle. So how great that you all could be that support system for people. Yeah, and

[Jill Ackerman] we just really, we’ve always had a tremendous relationship with our city government officials, and they’re just one of our strongest partners, also have an awesome relationship with our economic development group, which is called Medco. And we really just worked lockstep together during that time. And, you know, I’ve never been more proud to be on a team. And it really shows when you’re going through chaos or, you know, an emergency situation like that. That’s amazing.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] So for all the other leaders that are listening to this episode, what’s kind of one tip that you would love to share that has kind of helped you through all your years as a chamber leader, or just something that you think has been invaluable to you?

[Jill Ackerman] Yeah, I think that relationship building is just critical. I do think also, like, I often wonder if I would be as effective in my role, if I hadn’t grown up in this community. Yeah, there’s just as almost another level of pride and a desire to want to see your hometown succeed, when you’ve actually grown up in the community. And, you know, but even if you haven’t, just getting acting like, it’s your like, it’s where you live, right, and building those relationships, even when, you know, there’s people that are always going to be skeptical about Chambers of Commerce or about gut city government. But if you sit down with them face to face, you listen to their concerns, and you show care for, for for those people. And, and they’re, you know, they just want to be heard most of the time. And we’ve we’ve really, I think, made great strides, and Marian, with, you know, they kind of call it you know, the there’s this 10% that’s always in the background kind of talking and being pessimistic. And those people have really been quiet in our community. Because I think we always listen to him. And, you know, try to value everyone’s opinion,

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] I have been so inspired by all of these conversations, because the inter woven thread of everything is really just be a good human, like, just be human, just be human with other humans. And amazing things can happen. It doesn’t matter about anything else, let’s just be humans. And I love that that’s what you’re doing. And that seems to help have been helping Marian thrive. If people are listening to this, or as you share this with your community, if there’s business owners that are listening to this that are not Chamber members. Now’s your chance, why would somebody want to join the Marion chamber? And how do they get a hold of you to learn more?

[Jill Ackerman] Yeah, so Marion is our is our website. And I just think it’s really important to support your local Chambers of Commerce. They are the cheerleaders for your community. They’re the ones that are putting on events, fun things, free events to do in your communities. They’re bringing businesses to town. They’re working on economic development, working on keeping our tax rates lower through commercial development. And really, I think especially with community chambers of commerce, we try to keep our costs as low as possible so that everybody can participate. We tried to offer flexible payment methods so that they can you know, that help with cash flow. It just it’s really, it’s critical to support your local chamber. They do a lot of work behind the scenes that people aren’t even aware of. So check us out at Marion CC that work.

[Sami Bedell-Mulhern] Yes. And I would agree with that last statement very much that there’s a lot of behind the scenes work that you all do and you work so hard. So Jill, thank you so much for being on this episode. I really appreciate it was very inspiring.

[Jill Ackerman] Thank you. Have a great weekend.

[Closing] Hey, thanks for listening to chats with chambers. For more information about the chamber featured in this episode or to check out show notes for links and resources. Visit nonprofitbootcamponline/podcast. Hey subscribe, give us a five star review if you liked what you heard and if you are a chamber would like to be a guest on this show. Hey, email us Or Links in the show notes


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Marion has a population of around 42,000. They are a Mainstreet Iowa community and the chamber has been around since 1938, and Jill has been with them for 15 years!

The community development work has been the biggest success. They received a grant called Iowa Great Places. When they first applied they were told to do a visioning process with their community and did that. Over 6 months they did brainstorming sessions and conversations with residents and businesses and got over 1,800 ideas. They then created a selection committee and narrowed it down to 100. The community voted it and got it down to 30 then the committee got it down to 8. They took the next 10 years to build out those community improvements. So then they did the whole process again and have 4 new projects they’re working on.

On top of COVID the area also experienced a derecho, which was a once in a lifetime store. They didn’t have power for a few weeks and there was lots of destruction. The community came together and worked together to help out and support each other. The chamber created an emergency food pantry in an old mall. They put the call out to their members to help bring in supplies the community needed. Partnerships with other key organizations in Marion have helped to really address what the community needs when it needs it.

Relationship building is critical. Jill feels like there is pride from growing up in the community, so even if you haven’t, pretend like you have. Sit down and have face-to-face conversations. Show care for all your business owners and members, remember they so often just want to be heard.

Questions We Asked

  • What is the Marion Chamber all about? [1:14]
  • What are some wins? [2:15]
  • What are challenges you face? [7:43]
  • What is your tip and trick to pass on to other chambers? [12:00]
  • How can you learn more about Marion? [14:06]
Marion chamber logo

Jill Ackerman

Marion Chamber of Commerce

The Chamber’s mission is…
To be a leading advocate for the business community, creating an attractive environment where business will flourish and residents achieve the highest quality of life.”

The Marion Chamber of Commerce works hard for your business and for the community we serve.  The Chamber supports policy laser focused on creating the BEST business climate and the BEST quality of life. 

The Marion Chamber strives to provide its members value through strong communication, exceptional member benefits and community leadership.

Learn more at: 

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