For twenty-seven years, Kerr’s work was attracting meetings and tourists to Washtenaw County. An Ypsilanti resident, Kerr went to EMU and worked as manager of Haab’s restaurant before she was hired in 1995 to head Ypsilanti’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Six years later, the top job at its Ann Arbor counterpart came open. “They had a search, and I applied,” she says.
Her personality and work ethic were a perfect fit, she says, for fielding “lots of phone calls, working with the media and directly with many of our groups and an absolutely wonderful team and board of directors” to attract business and leisure travelers. She oversaw the two bureaus’ merger in 2015 and their rebranding as Destination Ann Arbor.
The merger was unpopular in Ypsilanti, which feared being lost in Ann Arbor’s shadow, but it was pushed through by the county commission, which funded both through a 5 percent tax on hotel room rentals. Former U-M athletic director Bill Martin, who owns the Residence Inn downtown, emails that Kerr helped bridge the divide because she was “well respected by all and reflected the interests of all parts of Washtenaw County.”
What changed in Kerr’s decades of selling the area? Ann Arbor’s “high-rise growth,” and the “growth of downtown Ann Arbor as a dining destination,” she says, have “been huge. And the [new] hotels.” There’s “less retail”—no more downtown department stores—but “we have so many wonderful, unique shops and bookstores.”
Since Destination Ann Arbor is tax-funded, Kerr says, “it’s important to work closely with [the county board] for their support, and city councils and mayors.” Her proudest accomplishment was working with Washtenaw Community College, the U-M, and EMU to bring thousands of union tradespeople to the area for training programs. But her biggest thrill, she emails, was “standing on the roof of Palio restaurant watching ‘The Puck Drops Here’ on a snowy New Year’s Eve in 2013. The next day, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings faced off at Michigan Stadium in the NHL Winter Classic in front of 105,491 fans—“still the largest crowd to see one of those games,” says U-M associate athletic director Kurt Svoboda. In 2014, 2016, and 2018, European International Champion Cup soccer matches also brought more than 100,000 fans to the Big House.
Kerr says the biggest obstacle to attracting visitors remains the “lack of dedicated meeting space” for large groups. (During her tenure, several convention center proposals collapsed over cost issues.) Another piece of unfinished business: Destination Ann Arbor’s sports commission is “taking a look at a large sports complex in Washtenaw County and where that might go, to bring more opportunities here.”
“I don’t think the sports commission would be around if it weren’t for Mary,” says its executive director, Mike Malach. “She got a lot of people on board and is an unbelievable majority-builder.”
With Kerr’s departure, Destination Ann Arbor’s chief financial officer, Sarah Miller, stepped in as interim president and chief operating officer. Kerr hired her in 2001 while she was still a student at EMU. In mid-December the board made it official, hiring her as Kerr’s successor.
Kerr “lived and breathed Destination Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County,” Miller says. “It was her everything, and that was evident in the passion she put forth.”