Tourists Still Flow Into Iowa Despite Flooding and Rain

NEITHER rain nor floods stopped vacationers from going to America's heartland as the Iowa State Fair got underway yesterday.

Attendance at the country's oldest state fair is expected to top 1992's record of 891,000, maintaining the 7-percent annual increase of the last five years. The reason, says Kathie Swift, the fair's spokeswoman, is that "we are 11 days of flood relief." The 400-acre historic fairgrounds located 10 minutes east of the capital's downtown were never flooded, she adds.

Only the number of entries for garden produce and home-cooked food are down; the deadline for both was July 12, the peak of the floods. Ironically, however, the number of horticultural exhibitors is up, Ms. Swift adds.

Events at the fairgrounds, which are used year-round, pump $60 million a year into central Iowa's economy.

All 168 camp sites at the fairgrounds are rented, tickets for the music concerts in the 11,000-seat Grand Stand are selling briskly - five are sell-outs, including that of country singer Garth Brooks, which sold out in 19 minutes; and the 7,000 motel and hotel rooms in the greater Des Moines area are filling up. Nonetheless, Iowa's tourism officials continue to work overtime bailing the state out of a national image that it is completely water logged.

"We have about one month to turn people's perceptions around," says Ellen Brown, Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau president. "After that we have to go back and start all over again creating an awareness of Iowa as a place you want to go to."

Of the bureau's $1.3 million budget, Ms. Brown spends 45 percent promoting the greater Des Moines area. Brown wants to increase the $621 million in revenue that conventions and tourist events generate each year; that number has remained flat since 1989.

To that end, the bureau purchased for $300,000 the rights and props to an air show that used to draw 50,000 people to rural Ida Grove. Earlier this month, the aviation show made its greater Des Moines debut in nearby Ankeny where a new airport is under construction. Even losing one day to rain, the five-day show held its own, drawing 50,000 enthusiasts who pilot miniature planes by remote control.

The bureau is also keeping an eye on the Covered Bridges Festival held each October in Winterset, west of Des Moines. Until last year, Winterset was mostly known as John Wayne's birthplace, and the festival largely a crafts and country music event.

But Robert James Waller changed that when he penned "The Bridges of Madison County." With the release of a CD and music video featuring Mr. Waller, and a soon-to-be-made movie starring Robert Redford, Madison County has become a tourist mecca.

"Last year we were lucky if we sent out 10 packets of information," says Sherry Ellis, director of Winterset's Chamber of Commerce. Since January, the chamber has mailed 395,000. By summer, Ms. Ellis had hired three staffers and installed a toll-free number because of the volume of calls.

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