By Glenda Graves | Portrait photo by Meredith Mashburn
Experience Fayetteville: Where Tourism and Community Meet
Fayetteville, while not the true geographical center of Northwest Arkansas, has served as the epicenter of the region. The first to have a revitalized downtown square, a farmers market and holiday lighting attractions, the city has long realized the importance of making the area equally attractive to tourists and residents alike. Experience Fayetteville is the destination marketing organization for the city. It is governed by the Advertising and Promotion Commission, which has operated in Fayetteville since the early ‘90s.
Molly Rawn took on the role of executive director for Experience Fayetteville in 2016. “I didn’t know how long I’d be here at the time, but I absolutely love this job and that isn’t false positivity,” she said. “Tourism is often pitted against the people who live in the community. People don’t always understand the ways it helps our community. But I believe tourism can give back and make our community so much stronger. I want our organization to help people understand that.”
Though her title has changed in the years since coming to work for Experience Fayetteville — she is now the organization’s chief executive officer — Molly is still working to promote Fayetteville. She is passionate about community engagement and community building. Molly spent many of her growing-up years in Little Rock but has lived in Fayetteville since 2005. “It’s home,” she said. “I have no intentions of ever moving.”
She said she knows people make plans for their future, and she believes God often laughs at that. “None of the plans I made for myself have come to fruition other than getting married and having kids,” Molly said. “Nothing else has worked out according to my plans. But I’m grateful for that. It’s turned out much better than me trying to control it.”
After receiving her degree in communications from the University of Arkansas in 2008, Molly worked at the Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter as director of development. She then joined the University of Arkansas as an associate development director for Fulbright College in 2010. She also worked in fundraising with KUAF and then the Scott Family Amazeum before coming to Experience Fayetteville. “I loved fundraising,” she said. “I learned so much. Though my current job is very different than the career I was in before, the skills I learned in fundraising prepared me for this career path.”
Molly said Experience Fayetteville works closely with the city of Fayetteville. “Right now, we are building a downtown organization, the Downtown Fayetteville Coalition, and that is so exciting to me,” she said. “It’s important to those of us who live here and call Fayetteville home. A lot of what I do is about bringing people to come and visit, but this project is more about focusing on the people who are already here. I’m working closely with the mayor’s office. Mayor Jordan really loves Fayetteville as much as it appears. It’s so genuine. He is Fayetteville’s biggest cheerleader.”
Experience Fayetteville has recently hired someone to lead the downtown coalition and Molly said the organization will eventually stand on its own, but in the meantime, Experience Fayetteville is “incubating it.” She hopes that this coalition will help Fayetteville’s downtown grow stronger and healthier.
Molly Rawn and Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan at the 2019 Fayetteville Pride Parade
Molly said the mission of Experience Fayetteville is to bring about a positive economic impact through tourism. “That will always be the focus,” she said. “Events like the Joe Martin Stage Race, in its 46th year, bring millions of dollars in tourism impact to our city. We are proud to be a part of that. But tourism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is impacted by larger issues.”
Molly is particularly focused on housing in the area. “It’s so important that we have enough housing for waitstaff, musicians and housekeepers for our hotels,” she said. “If they can’t afford to live in our city, we cannot grow the tourism economy. We must start looking outside the box.”
A specific project that Experience Fayetteville has delved into recently is engaging the local music scene. Molly knows the importance of a thriving music economy and looks forward to seeing the outcome of The Folk School of Fayetteville setting up shop in the historic Walker-Stone House. With the Fayetteville Roots Festival taking a hiatus, Bernice and Bryan Hembree will be focusing their energy on a place for the community to gather for jam sessions, workshops, lessons and more.
Molly is also looking forward to creating a tourism master plan for Fayetteville. “I think we are in need of one,” she said. “We are currently in the process of looking for a group to help us in that regard. We want to create a five- and a ten-year plan.”
She imagines one of the major focuses in the near future will be on the relationship with the University of Arkansas. “I value that relationship deeply and want to even strengthen it and work on sharing data better,” she said. “A major part of our identity in Fayetteville is that we are a university town and all the quirky things that come along with that. They are the city’s largest employer. Even outside of all the tourism we receive from sports, we get conferences for academics, et cetera, that we wouldn’t have without them.”
In fact, Molly is working on a project with the other cities of Southeastern Conference universities. The “cities of the SEC” are coming together to market their cities, not just their schools.
Outside of work, Molly is busy with her three kids. She has a senior in high school, an eighth grader and a fifth grader, and they all attend Fayetteville Public Schools. She has always loved reading and said she is in what she likes to call a “no-commitment book club.” She said during the COVID-19 pandemic her family picked up the habit of spending much more time outside. “Spending time outside wasn’t part of my childhood,” Molly said. “I grew up doing inside stuff. But we have so many wonderful places in and around Fayetteville, and I’ve loved becoming more of an outdoorsy person.”
Molly said she is proud to represent Fayetteville in the way she does. “I feel like this is the city where I’ve spent the best years of my life thus far,” she said. “It has provided me with so many opportunities, and I want to give back. We are growing at such a fast pace, and it’s important to follow how we are growing. I have an opportunity to help influence that so that we can make things better for future generations who live here.”