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Annual tradition turns Iowa summer tourism town into a 'hot spot' for a winter weekend

Courtesy of University of Okoboji Winter Games

The Iowa Great Lakes area will get an economic boost as their 42nd annual University of Okoboji Winter Games kicks off on Thursday.

The snow-filled festival, which features winter sports tournaments and snowmobile races, usually attracts around 30,000 people into the area. It's a way for the town that relies on its summer tourism to make itself attractive to visitors in the colder months.

Okoboji Director of Tourism Rebecca Peters estimates the games have a $3 million economic impact on the area and its local businesses.

“Because we are such a small area, almost all of our businesses are locally owned,” Peters said. “They're small, independent businesses, and this makes a big difference to their bottom line.”

Peters said the games also help to grow their community. She said she believes finding ways for locals to enjoy Okoboji beyond the summer months has helped fuel population growth in Dickinson County.

The county saw a 6.2 percent population increase from 2010 to 2020 – making its growth rate second only to Sioux County in the western Iowa region.

“I think it's really important to offer people that live in the community something exciting to do and something to look forward to all year long, not just in the summer,” she said. “So it really does add to their quality of life.”

 Kites take flight at the Boji Kite Festival last year. It's just one of the many festivities a part of the University of Okoboji Winter Games.
Courtesy of the University of Okoboji Winter Games
Kites take flight at the Boji Kite Festival last year. It's just one of the many festivities a part of the University of Okoboji Winter Games.

But, the winter event draws in more than just locals. Director of events at Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Kiley Zankowsi said they’re anticipating people from more than 22 states to attend. She attributes the large turnout to the wide-variety of activities offered – from the popular polar plunge to the Boji Kite Festival, which will feature as many as 100 different kites.

She said that kind of national attention to the University of Okobji Winter Games means a lot to the community.

“We're an extremely seasonal location, we really rely hard on Memorial Day to Labor Day,” she said. “And so for our businesses to be able to have a weekend as big as Fourth of July in the middle of winter is just amazing for our community.”

Alesia Johnson, business manager at Pearson Lakes Art Center, said it’s the one weekend in the wintertime where she can depend on foot traffic into their galleries and gift shop that features the work of local artists.

“We definitely look forward to it,” Johnson said. “We're very busy in the summer with visitors. But, in the wintertime you may just have seven or 10 people come in.”

Many of the local businesses participate in the events, hosting live music or participating in the annual chili cook-off. The event will feature both indoor and outdoor activities for people to enjoy.

Zankowski said she’s proud of how the community comes together to make the games happen each year.

“It really is that shot in the arm that they need to make it to summer for some businesses just with how slow it is here in the winter,” Zankowski said. “It's an exciting time.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.