She didn’t make a huge leap; in fact, her hometown is only about two hours away.

But for Karen Niverson, the new executive director of the Columbus Area Visitors Center, Columbus is a big change. Niverson, who grew up in Fairmount, married her high school sweetheart and then stayed in the area, has made a rather dramatic change in accepting the new role.

But it’s a welcome change.

Niverson, 53, recently bought a house on the north side of Columbus and plans to bring her husband and parents along to the Athens of the Prairie. She comes to her her new role straight from her position as the director of the Grant County Visitors Bureau.

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Tell me about growing up in a small town.

I grew up in Fairmount, Indiana, and it is a very small town. I enjoyed being a part of a small community and knowing all of my neighbors. I feel like I really got the Midwestern values, the Hoosier values — families and neighbors. We’d play kick ball in the backyard with all of our neighborhood friends. We went Christmas caroling as a neighborhood group. I feel like in small communities you get those experiences you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

What made you stay in the area?

My family was there. My husband was also from the same town and his family was also there. We just had a very strong family network there. I love the community. I guess I felt a strong sense of ownership in the community. In a small town you can make a big difference. It really carries over here too.

What led you into the tourism industry?

When I came into the tourism job, the door opened and I came in without knowing a lot about the industry. I had been in retail, I had worked in hotels. I had worked in the arts — and those are all components of the tourism industry. I was building a foundation without realizing it. I had been involved in so many of the components. And now I work with retailers and hoteliers and artists and it’s neat. I have a good feeling for what these people do. And so it has worked out really well.

What drew you to Columbus?

I think people around the state look to Columbus. We see that Columbus is a leader, not only in tourism but in a lot of community development and economic development. When the opportunity to come here and be a part of what goes on in Columbus became available, I thought, what a wonderful community to come and live in and make a home in. I’ve worked around the state, but I’ve always been based in the Fairmount/Grant County area. My husband and I are recent empty-nesters. It was time for us to say, ‘What’s our next chapter, What adventure can we take?’

What’s your family like?

It’s my husband, Charles (Niverson), and I. I also have two daughters, twins. They’re 23 years old, and named Audrey and Marlo Niverson. All of our family wanted us to name them rhyming names, but we decided against that. I have a little cat — he’s kind of leftover from the kids. We’re looking for a home right now. Ideally, I’d like to be within bicycling distance of downtown. Charles worked for almost 30 years for Gannett, and they sold the newspaper in Marion a few years back. He’s a press operator at heart. This will be an opportunity for him to find something new. We’re bringing my parents with us as well. Right now Charles is still up there tying up some loose ends.

What’s been something surprising you’ve learned about Columbus?

I think that what’s been surprising is that, given the size of the community, that it is such a tight-knit group of people. Everyone seems to be well acquainted with everyone and recognize family and friends when they’re in shops. I hadn’t expected that it would be quite as intimate as the small town that I came from, but it feels very much the same.

What’s something that you didn’t know we had here?

I’ve been to Columbus many times, for small conferences and even just leisure travel. I don’t want to say I know everything about Columbus. I think what I’ve been surprised about is the amount of pedestrian traffic in downtown. I leave for work a little bit early so i can kind of cruise downtown a little bit and become more familiar with the community and it amazes me, the number of people I see out walking. It’s such a vibrant downtown area. That’s not something you see in a lot of downtowns around the state.

If extra terrestrials landed in Columbus, Indiana, tomorrow, and they were going to go touring around, where would you take them in Columbus?

From what I’ve seen so far — and I’ve taken the architecture tour and I’ve toured the Miller House — and I’m making it my job to try out every restaurant downtown, I’d take them on the People Trails. I’ve walked along there, and I’m just amazed at how you can be here in town and feel like you’re a million miles from civilization when you’re walking along that river. And, of course, I would take them to the Miller House.

What do you think about the Miller House?

What I love about the Miller House is that it is a museum-quality exhibit, but it was a family home.

Outside of work, what are some things you do in your off hours?

I love to work in the flower garden. I’m excited to have a place where I can dig in the dirt again. I love to ride my bik,e and I can’t wait to get out on the People Trails. I like to explore small towns. I’m interested to see some of our neighboring communities. I love to be outside. We’re looking forward to being able to go to the farmers market. And I generally find myself being very involved in volunteer activities. It’s easy to get connected. We usually get involved in the church and civic theater. We’ll be at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church. I haven’t had a chance to attend Mass here.

What about Columbus – and Bartholomew County as a whole — makes it special?

I think the quality of life here is wonderful. You have the recreational opportunities, the cultural opportunities. It’s got a small-town feel, with the city amenities available: The great restaurants, good shopping. Columbus has all of the pieces that make a very livable community.

What’s something that you’ve found inspiring about Columbus?

I think that people’s willingness to welcome new people is inspiring. For instance, as I’m meeting new people and they’ll ask me if I’ve found a new home yet — these are people that don’t know me very well, but they really want to see me settled in and to have a good experience. I would be just as easy for them to say, well, good luck and walk off. But they don’t. They’ll call and email me suggestions. That’s a great surprise for me.

Karen Niverson

Age: 53

Hometown: Fairmount, Indiana

Family: Husband, Charles, 56; twin daughters Audrey and Marlo, 23

Interests: Bike riding and exploring small towns

By the numbers

Tourism in Bartholomew County

$341,582,346: The annual visitor spending in Bartholomew County

$80,488,741: The total taxes generated by the Bartholomew County tourism industry

4,376:  The number of Bartholomew County jobs supported by the local tourism industry.

32 cents: The amount of every visitor dollar spent in the county that goes to retail shops.

Author photo
Jenny Elig is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at jelig@therepublic.com or 812-379-5671.