Government

Profile: As Marion mayor AbouAssaly nears 5 years, he leads city through challenging year

Some wonder when the mayor finds time to sleep

Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly (right) reaches for a case of water from Willie Zheng, 16, of Marion as Linda Fischer (left
Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly (right) reaches for a case of water from Willie Zheng, 16, of Marion as Linda Fischer (left) of Cascade carries a box of donated food and other items to a vehicle at the Marion City Food Pantry on Aug. 20. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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MARION — When the Aug. 10 derecho hit Eastern Iowa, Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly could hardly get back into his own town.

Like many other drivers that day, he navigated roads blocked by fallen trees, downed power lines and blown debris to find a path through the maze. AbouAssaly was coming from his law office in downtown Cedar Rapids and headed to Marion when the storm finally let up.

“I was speechless as I went through Uptown,” AbouAssaly recalled. “I started seeing roofs gone, the Granger House, the Wit’s End building . I was just speechless and heartbroken. You saw all that damage and destruction and you can’t help feel overwhelmed. I knew we just had to start.”

AbouAssaly drove straight to the main fire station.

“Our chief is the lead in a response like this,” he said. “We started from there, gathering people together. Our crews were already out trying to clean streets.”

City officials and crews “approached everything one hour at a time . That’s how those first couple weeks were, an incremental process. Then you start to see a path to recovery.”

The city set up a food distribution center at Marion Square Plaza and a command center in City Hall.

AbouAssaly set up an office at the food distribution center, spending time helping out there. He also was active on social media, answering residents’ questions and offering resources.

“I think that in a crisis like that, people want to know you care about them,” he said. “That was the biggest thing for me — making sure people knew we cared. That was the most important part, to let people know they hadn’t been forgotten.”

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AbouAssaly is approaching five years in the Marion’s mayor’s job, which pays $10,218 a year, having been elected to the position twice. He initially joined the City Council in 2013 when he was appointed to fill a six-month vacancy.

“Nick lives and breathes everything Marion,” council member Will Brandt said. “He’s such a supporter of the community, and if anything is going on, you’ll find him there.”

City Council member Grant Harper, who was a teacher at Linn-Mar High School when AbouAssaly attended school there, suggested that was the case back then, too.

“He was extremely active in everything growing up,” Harper said. “He was the epitome of the Energizer Bunny. He still is the Energizer Bunny. If he sleeps at all, I would be amazed.”

Council member Colette Atkins said the supportive and open environment she said the mayor has helped create didn’t just come by happenstance.

“An environment like that comes from the support of a good leader,” Atkins said. “He’s collaborative and he makes sure the decisions we make are solid and reflective, allowing voices to be heard.”

Lon Pluckhahn, Marion’s city manager for more than 13 years, noted he has worked with four different mayors.

“They’ve all been good people and brought their different strengths, but I don’t know when (AbouAssaly) finds time to sleep.”

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Growing up in Marion after immigrating with his family from Lebanon due to civil war, AbouAssaly has been a Marion resident since he was 8 years old. He said in the past, he felt like Marion was forgotten about as a small town outside of Cedar Rapids.

“I felt that Marion wasn’t really at the table as part of the equation of the region,” he said.

“It was a community that grew a lot by people moving here. But they saw it as a place to sleep; there wasn’t an emotional connection.”

In 2007, the population of the city was about 28,000. Now, the population has boomed past 40,000, according to Pluckhahn.

“Marion was a bedroom suburb, but Cedar Rapids became an economic powerhouse in the last 10 years and now we’re a business sector in our right,” Pluckhahn said.

In the past five years, many ambitious projects have started in Marion including construction of a new library, the CeMar Trail, the new YMCA and the Prospect Meadows baseball complex.

Last month, the Marion City Council was presented with a new project that could impact the look and feel of Uptown Marion for generations to come. Mark Kittrell, the chief executive officer and Founder of Eagle View Partners, plans to build two buildings in the current Marion Square Plaza space, one a residential and commercial property and the other residential only.

Nick Glew, president of Marion Economic Development Corp., said the project, called the Broad and Main development, will be one of the most catalytic in the community for a long time.

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“We’ve talked for years about how we need people living in the Uptown area. I think that will begin to be one of the more transformational investments,” Glew said. “The mayor has made it his personal goal to help support that however he could.”

Brandt said AbouAssaly was very involved in attracting Kittrell to Marion.

Mixing all these projects with a massive storm and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused AbouAssaly to reflect on his job and philosophy.

“It’s made me realize it’s easy to be a leader when times are going well,” AbouAssaly said. “But now, in a time of crisis, this is when leadership really matters. This is where you draw on the credibility that you earned. The confidence, the trust people have in you, that is earned over time.”

Comments: (319) 398-8255; gage.miskimen@thegazette.com

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