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Besides serving as Top of Iowa greeter, Norlyn — who runs his real estate and insurance business in Emmetsburg during the week — endears himself to the boss by helping with everything from maintenance to interior design.

“It’s kind of a family endeavor,” says Jean Stowell, the boss. Jean has managed the facility since it opened in June 1998.

“There’s no sense me being in town when she’s out here,” says Norlyn about his weekend trips to Northwood to spend time with his wife.

The Top of Iowa “family” strives to make the welcome center, well, welcoming. They accommodate church groups, pay deference to the predominant local heritage with Norwegian festivals, and host concerts — both planned and impromptu.

“We have good acoustics in this building,” boasts Jean. “Travelers get a kick out of it when people just burst into song.”

Top of Iowa represents the melding of several visions. In 1993 business and government leaders in Winnebago and Worth Counties sought to attract visitors by forming the nonprofit organization I-35/105 Welcome Center Inc.

The group obtained land at exit 214 and began laying the groundwork for a visitors’ center at the state’s northernmost interchange.

The Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED) was also interested in adding a welcome center at this gateway location just four miles south of the Minnesota border.

“During the planning process, [the I-35/County Road 105 intersection] was determined to be a key location for an Iowa Welcome Center,” says LuAnn Reinders, Welcome Center and Research Manager with the Iowa Tourism Office.

The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), meanwhile, was in the process of updating or replacing aging facilities, including a pair of I-35 rest stops (both northbound and southbound) in nearby Clear Lake.

Working with IDED and targeting the I-35/105 interchange made sense. “We had always thought the Welcome Center should be near the location where you enter the state,” explains Steven McMenamin, DOT Rest Area Administrator.

(Read more Welcome to Iowa)

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