Area draws 800,000 annual visitors and $42 million sales

By Gigi Wood

gigi@corridorbiznews.com

Note: This first appeared in the May 2-8 issue of the Corridor Business Journal.

AMANA COLONIES – It’s a blend of new and old.

Take, for example, the 71-year-old Ox Yoke Inn at 4420 220th Trail in Amana. A tourist favorite, the restaurant has been serving family-style meals for decades. On April 2, the Ox Yoke hosted its Spring Vintner’s Dinner with White Cross Cellars, a wine retailer at 755 48th Ave. in Amana, to offer an off-menu five-course meal with classic wines, as well as European and California varieties.

That combination is one example of how Amana businesses have reinvented themselves, while maintaining the community’s heritage. The term Amana Colonies refers to the six towns in Iowa County: Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, West Amana and Homestead, located along Highway 6, about 23 miles west of Iowa City.

The towns are unincorporated and not tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau. No one is certain, but there are about 1,300 people living in the Amana Colonies, said Kristie Wetjen, executive director of the Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau.

History

The Amana Colonies are a National Historic Landmark and the largest historic landmark in Iowa. The Community of True Inspiration, a Pietistic German group, sought refuge from religious persecution in Europe and settled what became one of the longest-lived communal societies in the nation.

Residents shared property and resources, received no wages and ate together in communal kitchens. Mostly utilitarian artists and crafters by trade, the products they produce have long been known for their quality and attention to detail.

The communal life existed until 1932, when, during the Great Depression, they set aside communal living to create a more modern, rural economy. They established the Amana Society, a profit-sharing corporation to manage their farmland, mills and larger enterprises. That organization today owns the property and businesses that have become tourist favorites, such as the Amana Woolen Mill, Amana General Store and Amana Furniture & Clock Shop.

Modern Amana

Today, the streets of the Amana Colonies maintain their historic brick, stone and clapboard homes, as well as lanterns that light cobblestone walkways.

More than 800,000 people visit the colonies each year, spending $42 million on food, beers, wines and gifts. That translates into 1,000 tourism-related jobs in the Amana Colonies.

The villages are located in Iowa County, which ranks 24th among counties in the state for domestic tourism dollars spent by visitors, at $37 million, according to the Iowa Tourism Office. That total is shared with the Tanger Outlet Mall in Williamsburg.

The Amana Colonies underwent a rebranding process four years ago and now refers to itself as “The Handcrafted Escape,” hanging its hat on those arts and crafts for which it is so well known. Previously, it had marketed itself as a historic museum destination, emphasizing tours of its seven historical sites, including the Amana Heritage Museum, Communal Kitchen and Cooper Shop, High Amana General Store, Communal Agriculture Museum, The Amana Community Church Museum, Homestead Store Museum and Homestead Blacksmith Shop.

“If you look at travel studies, the studies indicate that people travel for history,” Ms. Wetjen said. “But if you look at museum sales, ticket sales, they don’t, so people lie. People say they travel for history, but they don’t. And it’s reflected at the (Herbert) Hoover (National Historic) Museum (in West Branch), it’s reflected in our museums, it’s reflected in Williamsburg, Va., at the Smithsonian. Everyone’s tickets sales have gone down.”

Tourism and business

After a 15-year decline in tourism numbers, Amana officials re-examined tourist trends.

“We realized that we needed to be showing what was not just old but that Amana is something old and something new and that there’s this great amalgamation of the two,” she said. “We are a living, breathing culture. The Amana culture is still alive. Even though we’re not communal, it hasn’t ended. It’s just a different phase of the culture and history.”

The brand change promotes the area’s variety of handcrafted products.

“Amana is so many different things and different people come for different reasons,” Ms. Wetjen said. “Some people come for the wine, some people come for the furniture, some people come for the food, other people come for the art, some people come just for the theater.”

Since that branding change, numbers have rebounded, even during slow economic times.

“In an economic downturn, people become more nostalgic and they want American-made products, they want quality products, they want things that remind them of when things were good and Amana is all of those things,” she said.

While many Corridor residents are familiar with the long-standing Amana Colonies businesses, such as the woolen mill, many new businesses have opened in recent years. Several existing companies have expanded, as well.

“During the past year alone, we’ve had six new businesses open,” she said. “In a town our size, that’s pretty good. We very rarely have empty buildings on Main Street. If we do, they fill pretty quickly.

The Old Creamery Theatre has offered plays for 40 years and now the colonies have a new theater, the Iowa Theatre Artists Co., which opened a few years ago. During the past four years, new businesses opening include gift shops, antique stores and a women’s boutique. Some of the art studios are expanding.

“Art in Amana has a very interesting history. Art for the sake of art was looked down upon in the communal era because they were a very frugal and simplistic community. If it didn’t have a purpose, you didn’t do it,” she said. “Now there’s a whole new generation of artists who create art for the love of art and the beauty of art.”

Although the Amana Colonies does not market itself internationally, almost every day someone signs the guest book citing another country as their home. The area attracts tourists from across the country, although the villages market mainly to Midwestern states. Other visitors include those coming to the area to study communal living as part of their college work and companies on group outings. With gas prices expected to hit $4 a gallon, the Amana Colonies are retargeting marketing efforts this year to focus on Iowa visitors.

“Each year, you have to look at your marketing plan and adjust it. When gas prices go close to $4 a gallon, you draw everything in tighter, in a tighter circle,” Ms. Wetjen said. “We know people have families and budgets and won’t be taking the big vacation.”

For the overnight traveler, there is a small hotel, 12 bed and breakfasts, an RV park, a dozen condos at the Amana Colonies Golf Course and hotels in the surrounding area, such as the Wasserbahn Waterpark Resort and Clarion Inn, located on Interstate 80 just south of the colonies.

“We need more of a hotel presence right within the villages; that seems to be what we’re lacking,” she said. “There are hotel travelers and there are bed and breakfast travelers and they don’t seem to cross the line very often.”

There are plenty of events for Iowans to attend throughout the year. There are activities nearly every weekend, with five major events taking place annually. The most popular, Oktoberfest, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, attracts 40,000 people. Maifest during the last week of April, Tannenbaum Forest in November and December, Prelude to Christmas from Dec. 2-4 and Winterfest during the last weekend of January are the other top events for the area.