Nick AbouAssaly stands among Marion’s Uptown Artway, just one of the many pieces of the city’s recent revitalization. PHOTO BRIAN DRAEGER
By Dave DeWitte
CBJ readers’ pick for 2018’s Most Influential in the Corridor took a different direction this year, recognizing the leader of the region’s third largest city for the first time. But to those who work closely with Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly, the choice couldn’t be more appropriate.
Marion has been a city on the move over the past several years, attracting development projects worth more than $100 million in 2018, and garnering 3,000 ideas from residents as part of a community-wide visioning process. It has won the All-Star Community Award from the Iowa League of Cities for a second straight year, and was among 20 American cities recognized for livability by the U.S. Conference of Mayors last summer.
Just on the horizon are a new regional YMCA, a $67 million downtown redevelopment project that will include a new public library, $10 million worth of additional trails and a new fire station, to name a few. Meanwhile, the area’s largest baseball complex is rising just northeast of the city, and will provide a steady stream of warm-weather visitors to Marion.
While Mr. AbouAssaly doesn’t take the credit, he makes it abundantly clear that Marion is no longer a sleepy suburb, and is charting its own future in the areas of wellness, quality of life, economic development and providing career connections to keep young people from moving away.
“We’ve become an urban center in our own right,” says the 52-year-old real estate attorney at Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman in Cedar Rapids. “That has to be accompanied by a change in the way we do business in our city. We used to have a big project a year. Now we have one every week.”
That is placing a strain on city government, and Mr. AbouAssaly is serious about making sure that customer service is high. The city staff is being restructured to keep up with the workflow and manage the growth, he said.
Marion Hy-Vee Store Director Andy Streit describes Mr. AbouAssaly as “the real deal.” Having managed Hy-Vee stores in four cities, Mr. Streit said he’s worked with a lot of mayors, and “I’ve never, ever seen a mayor who’s more engaged with all levels of the community.”
Steve Jensen is one of the city’s newer city council members, but it didn’t take him long to realize that Mr. AbouAssaly isn’t serving to maintain the status-quo.
“The city’s vision statement, which was created when Nick was on the council, is ‘Reach Higher,’” Mr. Jensen said. “He uses that to challenge the citizens of Marion, the city staff and the city council. He tries to use that as his vision for the city.”
Marion Chamber of Commerce President Jill Ackerman says that’s literally what Mr. AbouAssaly does, at times exhorting developers with projects up for city council consideration to deliver their best for the city. But another distinctive quality of Mr. AbouAssaly is that he’s vocally supportive of other communities, praising their accomplishments and trying to learn more about how they succeeded to help his own city, she said.
Beyond serving as a leader, Mr. AbouAssaly said he’s always striving to be “Marion’s best supporter,” helping to build an emotional attachment between newcomers and the city, and changing the mindset of longtime residents from “why?” to “why not?”
It appears to be working, Mr. AbouAssaly said, with a recent citizen survey showing 92 percent of residents rate Marion as a “good” or “excellent” place to live and 67 percent indicating they “couldn’t imagine a better place to live.”
One area where Mr. AbouAssaly won’t cut corners is on the time needed for citizen engagement. He strongly encourages the city council to attend Saturday morning citizen input sessions at the Marion Public Library, and hosts regular Coffee with the Mayor gatherings at the local Hy-Vee or a coffeehouse.
“They’re a joy for me to watch,” Mr. Streit said, describing Mr. AbouAssaly as equally enthusiastic to hear the views of elderly citizens, young mothers and local business leaders.
When Mr. Streit was talking to Mr. AbouAssaly outside Hy-Vee one day, a citizen approached the mayor with “some pretty pointed comments,” Mr. Streit recalled. After the citizen departed he couldn’t help but praise Mr. AbouAssaly’s calm and thoughtful response.
Mr. AbouAssaly didn’t just shrug off the compliment, but turned it into a learning moment.
“Their opinion really matters, Andy – everybody has something valuable to say,” the mayor replied.
Whenever he receives an email or voice message from a citizen, Mr. AbouAssaly said his goal is to respond within 24 hours. Many of the residents just want advice and responding quickly to citizens who really do have concerns with the city’s plans or actions often keeps misconceptions from spreading.
Who is Nick AbouAssaly?
One of the obvious differences between Mr. AbouAssaly and previous mayors is his background as a first-generation immigrant, which only seems to enhance his appreciation of Marion.
He was put on a plane to live with relatives in Marion in 1975 at the age of nine, during a dangerous time of civil unrest in his native Lebanon, and was later joined by his family. He went on to attend the University of Iowa, earning a bachelor’s degree in finance and a law degree.
Being mayor while serving as a partner practicing real estate law at the area’s largest law firm makes for a lot of 18-hour days. Mr. AbouAssaly sometimes tells his wife, Cristiane, that when his life is over, “I will not have wasted a minute” – and not entirely in jest.
The common motivation among Mr. AbouAssaly’s endeavors is “making a difference in whatever I’m involved in.” That, in fact, is what brought him back to Marion after beginning his law career in Texas. After graduating from the University of Iowa College of Law in 1992 with distinction, he began a promising career at energy giant Exxon in Houston. The corporate law position came with a good salary and promising career path, he said, but he didn’t feel like he was making any kind of a difference in the world.
One day, Mr. AbouAssaly came home to a find a package from his family in Iowa waiting on the porch steps.
“I opened the box and the smell of the bread my mother baked came pouring out,” he recalled. “I realized then how much I missed my family. I sat down on the steps and bawled like a baby.”
He moved back from Houston in 1995, quickly becoming involved in Chamber of Commerce committees both in Marion, where he lived, and Cedar Rapids, where he worked. He was first elected to the Marion City Council in 2013.
Influence isn’t a concept Mr. AbouAssaly takes lightly. He believes that influence is being a voice that others will want to listen to and an example that others will be willing to follow.
“I really feel that life is about relationships,” he said. “You have to earn credibility with people. It comes from spending a lifetime developing relationships, earning trust through honesty and sincerity.”
Beyond his many one-on-one relationships through business, Mr. AbouAssaly has a strong network of contacts through service to his church, civic groups, the Marion Economic Development Corp. board and intergovernmental groups like the Corridor MPO Policy Board. He’s known former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett since his college days, when he drove an ice cream truck for Mr. Corbett’s small business.
Mr. AbouAssaly already had a high profile in the Corridor coming into this year’s Most Influential vote. He came in second in 2017, behind Van Meter President and CEO Lura McBride.
In the remainder of his term, Mr. AbouAssaly hopes to advance a new city initiative to address homelessness and housing security, and “continue working to build a positive, caring and inclusive community that provides great opportunities for all its residents to enjoy an unequalled quality of life.”
For those who might follow in his footsteps, “don’t do it for the title or the status,” he advises. City leaders should be concerned not only with accomplishing good things in their communities, Mr. AbouAssaly said, but “providing opportunities for others to achieve their goals and experience a great quality of life.”
“It’s a high-touch job that requires perceptive, caring and compassionate people who genuinely enjoy interacting with others and helping people solve issues.”