Published September 06, 2012
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The hotels were completely booked, people from all over the state would be pouring into town and University of Iowa students and the city's police were preparing for one of the biggest weekends of the year.
This was the case even before President Barack Obama announced that he, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives would hold a rally for thousands of supporters on a campus green in downtown Iowa City, the state's liberal stronghold.
The star-studded event, coming the day after Obama accepts the Democratic Party's nomination to run for re-election, adds more excitement to what residents say could be the city's most memorable and chaotic weekend in memory. Obama's arrival will coincide with an influx of thousands of football fans for Saturday's annual game between the Hawkeyes and their intrastate rivals, Iowa State, that doubles as perhaps the state's biggest party every year.
Often billed as a quiet college town where aspiring writers hone their craft, Iowa City will be crazier than ever, with the political activism, tightened security and street closures that accompany a presidential visit set against a background of ubiquitous house parties, stadium tailgating and general revelry.
An annual pep rally and celebration for Hawkeye fans known as FryFest, named for beloved former Iowa coach Hayden Fry, is expected to draw 20,000 or more people to neighboring Coralville on Friday, even while Obama's rally happens a few miles away.
As Obama speaks, the 83-year-old Fry, who is a proud conservative, is expected to take the stage to energize his crowd. After the Hawkeye rally, thousands are expected to attend a concert by country star Sara Evans.
"Iowa State weekend is always huge. Having FryFest be a part of that this year makes it bigger than it's ever been. And having the president and vice president and their spouses in town, I can't think of a day that has been bigger as far as activity goes in the history of the community," said Joshua Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Schamberger, whose group sponsors FryFest, joked that they were able to book the Hawkeye marching band before the White House could. But he made clear that Obama and Biden would be welcome to stop by mingle with Hawkeye fans at FryFest before they take the stage at the campus rally, a photo-op that many locals expect.
University President Sally Mason will be near Des Moines for a previously scheduled engagement Friday. She will stop at FryFest on her way back rather than attempt to navigate the traffic and security of Obama's rally, which will be outside her office.
"I won't have any easier access to campus than anyone else," she said. "I can't recall this much chaos. But it's organized chaos."
For students, the wacky weekend was starting Thursday with a concert by the rapper TPain, as part of an event called Hawkapalooza.
Sophomore Dana Marin, 19, said she's planning to skip classes Friday to attend Obama's rally and is excited to see the first lady. She plans to party Friday as a friend turns 21, tailgate before Saturday's game starting at 10 a.m., cheer on the Hawkeyes at Kinnick and then go out again. She'll make time to see her boyfriend's parents, who are coming to town for the weekend.
"I'm probably more excited to see the president than the Iowa-Iowa State game, but I'm excited for the game, too," Marin said after picking up her tickets to the campus rally. "You don't have weekends like this very often."
Kelsey Boehm, chair of UI College Republicans, was planning to stage a protest during Obama's event to try to energize Romney supporters. She said she plans to work a 14-hour bartending shift Saturday before and after the game at a popular downtown bar.
"There's going to be a lot of people," she said. "Honestly, it'll be packed."
The excitement will come with disruption. Several campus buildings and entire blocks of the city's downtown will be closed for much of Friday due to the president's visit. Classes have been moved or cancelled, and traffic is expected to be gridlocked.
"I can't remember anything that is taxing all of the agencies so very much," said Coralville Police Chief Barry Bedford, who's held that position since 1988. He said the department expects to receive more calls for service and deal with more accidents than usual, and he warned that response times could be slow for non-emergencies.
"You kind of get the sense that people are thinking, 'Wow, it's going to be tough'," Bedford said of his officers, who will work through the weekend. "But we'll get it taken care of. I'm confident people can have a great time and it won't be too intrusive."