Travelogue: The Road to #MAMA19FR…With Another Purpose Along The Way

The year's Road to the Midwest Automotive Media Association Fall Rally would not be possible without a consensus of my fellow member colleagues.

Back in July, I attended my first MAMA engagement of the year at a media drive for the 2020 Hyundai Palisade. It was also the first time since February I got to see my colleagues, after missing their Spring Rally back in May due to my illness and complications from said health issue(s).

The discussion turned to whether I was coming to the Fall Rally. I made the mistake of thinking out loud. At that time, I was "invited" to also attend the Washington Automotive Press Association's Rally just southeast of Washington, DC (and south of Baltimore) on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. I mentioned that I was undecided on which one to go and wanted to a cost analysis before I committed to either fall media association event.

One of the board members of MAMA – a great colleague of mine – pointed out the obvious: Since I missed the Spring Rally, I am better off attending the Fall Rally. He's right, you know…

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As with most journeys to one of my favorite annual media association events, there was a twist to the plot. As you read last month, one of my outlets decided to change the focus of my column in their magazine towards road trip experiences. Since there is a purpose for that column, I figured I reach out to some convention and visitors bureaus to see which one would want to have their community spotlighted in that column.

Sure enough, a simple drive from home to the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois became a focused two-night stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a travel media immersion tour.

It has been years since I've stopped in Cedar Rapids. I usually would drive through it on my way home from something – that's right, MAMA Fall Rally! But, this city of over 133,000 simply cannot be ignored. The Crown Rally crew made it their stop two years running. And, it is truly a very lovely town to check out.

Their tourism office and I were in contact over doing the road trip story for Lavender Magazine. We created an itinerary for two nights with a guided tour of a museum I've always wanted to visit, plus meals with their representatives and some members of the local community. Let's just say that I was looking forward to work on this story before hitting the MAMA Fall Rally.

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A few days before I left for Cedar Rapids and Joliet, I had a 2020 Volvo XC40 T5 AWD Inscription delivered for the purpose of taking it to Autobahn. It was something I worked with before and felt it would be the right vehicle for the job of this road trip.

My journey began the Sunday before the MAMA Fall Rally. It was wet out there in the early part of daylight, but it got clearer the further south I drove. Still cloudy, but comfortable. I feared that more storms would hit upon my arrival, which never materialized.

One tip I received from a friend up in the Twin Cities was to mind my driving on Interstate 380 through downtown Cedar Rapids. That section has camera enforcement and they're not playing. Even if you drove one mile-per-hour above the posted 55 MPH sign, you will get a nice bill from the Linn County courts.

My "home" for the two nights in Cedar Rapids is The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. This is not just any hotel, but a part of the Hospitality program at Kirkwood Community College across the street. Kirkwood's students are given the opportunity to work at the hotel and restaurant for course credits while understanding how to run such an operation.

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Let me just say that I was floored by not only the welcome I received, but the room picked out for me. I do not recall the last time I stayed at a suite, but that was what was waiting for me. A modern two-room suite – exactly to my style – would be my home for the two nights in Cedar Rapids. I had the one facing west out towards Eastern Iowa Airport.

Also waiting for me was a gift basket, courtesy of Cedar Rapids Tourism. It included everything I needed to make this travel media immersion visit beyond worthwhile. They threw in my meals at select restaurants in the city, along with a jar of honey, a can of microbrewed beer, and a bottle of local bourbon. I will admit that I was emotional over that gesture.

The tourism marketing person in Cedar Rapids did mention that The Hotel at Kirkwood Center offered shuttle services for rides into town. If you had a group, then you get the requisite Ford Transit high roof van. For individuals, you are chauffeured in a Volvo S90 T5 Momentum. For a quick run to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, I chose the latter.

The Museum of Art showcased a great collection of Grant Wood's works – aside from American Gothic. If you liked that masterpiece, then you have to see this collection of his other works. The remainder of the collection was centered on the same era as Wood, with either local artists or friends of Wood's showcasing astounding pieces from the early-to-mid-twentieth century.

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Next to the museum was a former Carnegie library that serves as the old wing of the museum. The interior architecture was equally impressive and very lovely.

Across a block-square park sits the new Cedar Rapids Public Library. The desk person at the museum pointed out that the library was built after the Flood of 2008, which wiped out sections of Cedar Rapids along the Cedar River. The flood would become a point of reference for this entire portion of this road trip by practically everyone I talked to in Cedar Rapids.

When the Cedar River crested on June 13 of 2008, it rose to a level of 31.12 feet – a record for the area. The damage was extensive affecting 14 percent of the city, displacing 18,000 people, and destroying over 5,300 homes and 310 city facilities.

On the first evening in Cedar Rapids, I was joined by a local couple, Matt and Rob, for dinner at the hotel. We talked about Cedar Rapids and how it was before the Flood of 2008 and how it has emerged from it.

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Afterward, my guides drove me through town to get a good overview to make sure I found my way to where I needed to be. The city is easy to get around, which helps to not worry why certain streets are called Northeast and Southeast even if they were, well, north or east or south. That is why we have navigation systems in our vehicles and smartphones these days.

A decent night's sleep dawned a new day. This one was going to be a hectic one, with the itinerary having me take a deep dive into Cedar Rapids itself.

In the 11 years after the flood, the city has transformed itself in places where the river caused the most damage. An entirely new neighborhood was created from this disaster – New Bohemia.

The neighborhood commonly known as NewBo, along with parts of the Czech Village and downtown, rose from the flood with a brand new purpose. Once a working class neighborhood, NewBo is now the hip and cool center of Cedar Rapids. While there were some of the old neighborhood found on its side of the Cedar River, everything else is new – housing, businesses, restaurants, and the people now living and working in the neighborhood.

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This was my starting point. A hearty and great breakfast at Brewhemia kickstarted my immersion into NewBo. I was also pointed towards exploring the neighborhood's hip and cool shops along 3rd Street SE. Of interest is actually a regional chain of t-shirt and gift stores called Raygun. In the heart of NewBo is an oasis of comedic delights that make fun of Iowa, as the joke is on Iowans who understand the joke(s). They are also topical – read: political. If you're a liberal and/or a card-carrying Democrat, they have a t-shirt or a gift for you. And, let's not forget about the LGBT folks and sports fans!

Lunch was at Black Sheep Social Club, an upscale bistro on the edge of downtown Cedar Rapids. There, I met with my contacts at Cedar Rapids Tourism Jennifer Pickar and Julie Stow. We talked about a new campaign they are developing to attract LGBT visitors to their city. This was the original reason for my being in Cedar Rapids – and why a version of this road trip story will appear in Lavender Magazine in a month's time.

The Flood of 2008 also affected the city's biggest attraction – the National Czech and Slovak Museum. The flood almost covered the entire building, saving most of the rooftop from the waterline. To rescue the building and its contents, an operation enabled the entire building to move up the hill away from the swollen banks of the Cedar River. Once the building was secured on higher ground, it re-opened to the public in 2011 to a massive crowd of around 10,000 people.

The collection inside the National Czech and Slovak Museum is absolutely wonderful. Never mind the fact that there is a Tatra and a CZ Jawa on display at the museum, but the message was quite clear as to tell the story of immigration in America through the lens of generations of Czech and Slovak settlers in Cedar Rapids and beyond. Jim Miller, the museum's Vice President for Development and Marketing, pointed out that its visitors – ranging from student groups to travelers from abroad – found the museum enlightening with the retelling of its cultural history and relevance to today.

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The most important piece that I walked away with is how to relate these stories to a newer generation. Miller and I can recall events, such as the 1967 Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the challenge is to relate these important events in Czech and Slovak history to a new generation of visitors to the museum. Many of these visitors were born after 1989, so they never experienced the changes that were made towards the splitting of the country into two nations and their subsequent membership into the European Union. To relate these events to where Czech and Slovak people in this country are today – along with every immigrant to this country – is to frame an understanding that our core experiences are not exclusive to one particular group.

My last meal on Monday was at a highly-recommended restaurant called Popoli. Located at an old bank near the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids, this place offered exceptional food and atmosphere. I am glad that Cedar Rapids Tourism sent me their way for a lovely final evening meal.

The final morning in Cedar Rapids was spent with a guided tour of The Hotel at Kirkwood Center. The hotel's General Manager Jackie Bohr and the Director of Sales and Marketing Paul Richey took me on a tour beyond the hotel showing me the conference center and the Hospitality program's classrooms.

If you are planning on a stay at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center later this year, you will be seeing a series of renovations inside and out of the property. Since the hotel does more than just accommodations – weddings and conferences, to name a couple – the hotel is looking to deepen its value as a destination.

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If you really want to see one of the better outcomes of this property and program, have a meal at the Class Act restaurant. These are not just culinary students working on top-notch meals, but to learn about how to deliver service at the same high level. Based on my experiences with the restaurant, they have certainly delivered with flying colors.

After my slogged my luggage onto the rear of the XC40, it was all Interstate highway to Joliet and the Harrah's Hotel and Casino. That was where I spent the night before hitting the Autobahn Country Club, as well as being the venue for our welcoming dinner for MAMA Fall Rally. 

With two nights in a city I needed to get more familiar with, I came away with some new feelings about this work. Yes, I am still an automotive journalist – that will never change. But, the feedback from one outlet I write for has guided this new turn of the corner in my overall work.

The key factor of this new emphasis on road trips is to ensure that the automobile is the co-star of the show. Otherwise, how could I encourage readers to go on their own road trips and guide them on how to make their journey a memorable one?

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Obviously, there will be a different version of the events you have read on here in that other regional lifestyle publication. That should be published in a month's time. When it is published – take a gander.

This is what I brought to the MAMA Fall Rally this year. The road to my annual fall stop on my editorial calendar was full of new experiences and opportunities – more so this year. It is what I do with it after I leave the Autobahn Country Club will determine this old guy's future in media.

That is how I answered the consensus of my colleagues to take the road to be here.

DISCLAIMER: Travel arrangements, accommodations, and meals in Cedar Rapids were provided by Cedar Rapids Tourism. Some travel arrangements at the MAMA Fall Rally were provided by the Midwest Automotive Media Association. Vehicle provided by Volvo Car USA.

All photos by Randy Stern

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