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Heidi Shaffer, Published January 20 2012

Head of Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau retiring

With temperatures this week making many residents question why they live here, it’s an even tougher sell to get tourists to visit.

It’s a marketing dilemma Cole Carley has faced since he started 21 years ago at the helm of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Despite Fargo’s frosty reputation, Carley – along with other area organizations and businesses – has worked at making the metro area a regional tourism hotspot.

Carley announced Friday he will retire from his position as president and CEO in July, after two decades of dramatic changes in the local tourism industry.

Shawn Dobberstein, executive director of the Fargo Airport Authority, described Carley as “a great salesman for our community.”

Carley, who is 61 but will turn 62 before retiring, pointed out he’s headed the visitors bureau through a number of mayors, city administrators and planners in both Fargo and Moorhead.

From his perch as the “cities’ salesmen,” Carley has watched the metro area’s dynamic times and tremendous growth.

Fargo-Moorhead boasted 2,260 hotel rooms when Carley started in 1990. Today, that’s almost doubled to 4,295 rooms.

The industry’s success can also be measured by the CVB budget, which comes entirely from lodging taxes. In 1990, the CVB worked with less than $500,000. Last year’s budget topped out at $1.3 million.

Over the same period, the number of passengers boarding at Fargo’s Hector International Airport doubled from 181,000 in 1991 to 350,000 last year.

“We very strongly believe tourism is the gateway to growth,” Carley said. “People don’t generally move to a place if they’ve never visited.”

The biggest boon to pushing Fargo-Moorhead as a destination of choice came early in Carley’s tenure.

“If you were going to single out one thing, it’d have to be the Fargo­dome,” he said.

Carley and his team have worked to fill the dome and other venues with conventions, sporting events and conferences, boosting Fargo’s visitors.

The visitors bureau works closely with the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Corp. and Airport Authority to coordinate all of the parts of tourism and the general economy.

“Cole’s organization has been an extremely important partner in working to bring conventions and big sporting events,” said Dobberstein, who has seen airline boardings at Hector International Airport rise as a result.

Carley compares the tourism industry to an ecosystem: When one sector is doing well, it feeds the others.

For example, the Fargo­dome’s opening in 1992 made way for the Rumble on the Red, a national wrestling tournament that draws thousands to the area.

The event is also one of the busiest times of year at Hector International Airport. And all the wrestlers, their families and fans help fill the local restaurants and hotels.

While the Fargodome and its events were the biggest boost Carly identified, the weather is generally the toughest challenge when selling Fargo.

Last year, a national contest through The Weather Channel named Fargo-Moorhead the “Toughest Weather City.” It’s a title many who are trying to market a community as a tourism destination would shy away from, but not Carley.

“It’s all good publicity,” Carley said with a smile remembering having to explain to radio personalities why a visitors bureau would be campaigning to win the title.

“They didn’t say ‘worst’ (weather city); they said ‘toughest,’ ” Carley said. “That could be saying something about us as a community.”

The organization has embraced Fargo’s frigid reputation and used it to intrigue would-be visitors.

The slogan “Always warm” gives outsiders pause when they read it on Carley’s business card, he said.

In that pause, Carley’s able to dispel some common misconceptions and de­scribe what the community has to offer.

Much of the confused outsiders’ view on the city is generated by the 1996 Coen brothers movie “Fargo,” which in many ways put the city on the map of popular culture.

The actual woodchipper that played an iconic role in the film is on display at the visitors bureau.

“Thousands and thousands of people have come in to take their picture with the woodchipper,” Carley said.

But it’s shocking how few people know about the “real” Fargo, Carley said.

“Your average Twin Citian knows as much about Fargo-Moorhead as a Floridian,” Carley said.


Readers can reach Forum business editor Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511