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Making the Grade

In 2009, the self-described ‘serial entrepreneur’ Angela Harrington arrived in Grinnell, Iowa, wanting to reinvent herself. After the economic crash the previous year, the Denver native moved to Grinnell and accepted a position with the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Convention and Visitors Bureau. However, her first marching orders from the board required tapping into her entrepreneur past and would result in one of her, and Grinnell’s, proudest accomplishments.

“In small towns, the community development, chamber of commerce and convention and visitor’s person is all the same person – which in Grinnell was me,” said Harrington. “My first task was to establish an events center that could support weddings, conferences and conventions. It was all on me.”

That directive resulted in the award-winning and nationally recognized Hotel Grinnell. But the road to making the property what it is today was anything but easy.

It took eight years to secure financing, one for tax credits and another year of construction. During that decade, it would be understandable had Harrington stepped away or given up. But ask her, and she will tell you the thought never crossed her mind.

“I would say that I am tenacious with a capital T,” said Harrington. “Once I set my mind to something, there has got to be a way.”

With the help of the Grinnell community and Iowa state government leaders, Harrington found solutions to all the problems she encountered along the way, something she doesn’t think would have been possible in other states or big cities.

“It is easy to make connections in Iowa. Easy to get to know city council members or city managers,” she said. “In my case, I was able to make a difference and be impactful because there weren’t a lot of barriers to reach the people who could help.”

The help and support Harrington received led to the opening of what is now a popular destination hotel filled with rich history and reminders of its past. Built in 1921, the building in which Hotel Grinnell is housed served as a public school until 1978 when it closed and became office space for the city.

For 30 years, the building was rarely used, resulting in deterioration. Harrington saw the building as a diamond in the rough and had a vision of turning it into a luxury hotel – something she believed Grinnell deserved.

“It felt like the hotel was the missing piece,” she said. “Grinnell had all of the trappings of a big city. Despite all of the setbacks, I had my sights set on bringing a great hotel to this town and was determined to figure it out.”

Harrington did figure it out, and the rest, as they say, is history – something you notice throughout the hotel. There are intentional nods to the building’s old school days in every room. These details include hotel registration forms printed on notebook paper, wooden red apples and guest rooms with chalkboards. The hotel’s on-site bar and patio is named The Periodic Table, the ballroom floor mirrors a basketball court and some furniture is made from old lockers.

In addition to the scholastic past, Harrington wanted the hotel to be sexy. Staying with the theme, men’s neckties are used as "do not disturb" signs and guests receive room key card sleeves that resemble hall passes.

For Harrington, her favorite thing about the hotel is that not one of the 300 pieces of art is duplicated in the building – a curation she jokingly says, “nearly killed her.”

In the end, Harrington says all the hard work that stemmed from her first ask back in 2009 was worth it.

“All of the awards we have won, both locally and nationally, have helped put Grinnell on the map,” said Harrington. “It felt like the recognition has given legitimacy to the cool factor that is Grinnell. It gave brick and mortar to a place people all over the world could come and stay.”

Published July 31, 2019

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