A tale of two cities: Growth in Johnson County

Tiffin, Solon see growth in population, business

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To many, a traffic signal isn’t more than just an everyday object.

But for Solon, the installation of its first-ever traffic signal, at Highway 1 and Main Street, last month is a bellwether of its immense growth.

Solon’s business and population growth rate increase — to which Mayor Steve Stange has had a front-row seat, growing up on Main Street — is matched by its small town counterpart of Tiffin.

While still small Johnson County towns, both have seen new businesses spring up as their populations spiked more than 115 percent since the 2000 census. In comparison, their home county’s population as a whole has grown 30 percent in the same time.

Officials in each city have a sort of strategy for coping with the population increases — and offering tax incentives for businesses to serve those growing populations — while still trying to hold on to an intangible small-town feel.

“I’ve actually watched it from the time that I was a little boy until now,” Stange said. “Some of the buildings have changed. Of course the streetscape changed. What I can say hasn’t changed is it still has that home feeling to it, that small-town feeling.”


When Doug Goettsch and his business partners wanted to open a brewery a few years ago but struggled to find a spot in a larger city, little did they know it would become the centerpiece of a future and bustling Solon Main Street.

The story of Big Grove Brewery can be traced to 2010 when, with the idea of sparking new business in their town, Solon city officials began to consider townsquare and streetscape improvements for Main Street.

“That was very inviting to businesses. The council in the last 20 years has been focusing on trying to bring in business,” Stange said. “That was a main focus for us — to increase our commercial abilities. And I think we have done very well with that so far.”

Flash forward to today. There are no empty spaces available on Solon’s Main Street.

The city “stepped up to the plate,” Goettsch said, for Big Grove — in the form of tax increment financing, to help the business demolish an old building where it now stands.

TIF is a funding method used to spur development within a city-created district. Cities can plow taxes expected to be generated by a development over a period of time back into paying for the project itself.

Solon has diverted almost $600,000 in TIF funding in the last fiscal year to support business development and infrastructure improvements.

“It just makes for a very vibrant downtown on a Friday or Saturday night now,” Goettsch said.

Since Big Grove opened on Labor Day 2013, Goettsch said business has exceeded his expectations. He said the city is great for a business — a high per capita income and a location in between bigger cities.

“I hope that we can be the anchor for the economic redevelopment of Solon,” Goettsch said.

Ron Herdliska, a longtime resident and City Council member, said the council has done a lot to encourage business in recent years — especially when it comes to restaurants. The city has also thrown TIF money into Red Vespa, a pizzeria.

“We’ve been very supportive of new businesses and we try to help them out as much as we possibly can,” Herdliska said. “All of those places serve really good meals and people are making it a destination to come out here.”

Solon is different from the “farming community” Herdliska first moved to in 1966. In addition to the businesses, four new subdivisions with more than 200 single-family lots are in the works.

Stange said he realizes homes in bigger cities in the area can be expensive, and Solon isn’t necessarily immune. But for now, he said the quick selling of older homes and the building of new ones shows that people still want to move there.

“There’s opportunities for homes here and I think there’s constantly people building,” he said.


Chad Freeman, owner of Freeman Construction, witnessed the growth of Tiffin as a longtime business owner, but also took part in it as a contractor.

Freeman said he came to Tiffin about 15 years ago to build a construction office because he couldn’t find much room anywhere else for it.

Since then, he has worked on projects like digging the basements of new homes and schools among other work. His company has dug the footprints of 50 new homes or duplexes this year alone.

Tiffin welcomed Freeman’s construction business with “opened arms” all those years ago, he said. Since then, Freeman has opened a second business, a bar called Throttle Down, and bought a few properties.

“I think it’s a nice, welcoming town. It’s got quite a bit to offer people,” Freeman said.

City Council member Michael Ryan moved to Tiffin about 30 years ago and saw the increase in homes firsthand. He said when he got to town, Tiffin had fewer than 200 rooftops. Today, the Census Bureau estimates Tiffin has about 900 houses.

“My wife and I built our home in ‘89 and ‘90. I think we were one of two building permits that year in Tiffin,” he said.

Tiffin Mayor Steve Berner said the population growth as well as the city’s public aid has done a lot to attract new businesses. He said Tiffin began using TIF money back in 1993 so some districts are beginning to expire — which means the city can start using those property taxes for other things.

In recent years, Berner said the city has used TIF to help pay for infrastructure expansion to accommodate growth.

“We are now reaping the benefits of that work,” Berner said. “We are definitely getting the interest of businesses.”

A dental office received TIF money to help build its new facility. Additionally, a veterinary office, medical center and pharmacy all recently have moved to Tiffin.

“We have now grown to the point where we’ve attracted those types of businesses,” Berner said. “That’s what kind of businesses we want and are very happy to have.”


Despite their grow in recent years and ambitious plans for expansion in the future, both Tiffin and Solon seem to want to keep their identities as bedroom communities.

To them, being a bedroom community means a having a small-town feel with a location that provides opportunity.

“We always have the best of both worlds — small town atmosphere with larger city benefits. I would like to continue to grow on that,” Berner said.

Tiffin city officials developed a land use comprehensive plan that outlines annexation priorities. Officials also are looking forward to the Forevergreen Road interchange project. The Iowa Department of Transportation has earmarked the interchange with Interstate 380 for 2018.

The project would make Park Road a new gateway into Tiffin. Berner expects the project to create a busy commercial area — Park Place — with big-box stores as well as add potentially thousands of homes.

For Solon, officials have created a comprehensive plan that would guide growth over the next 20 years. Stange said commercial space still is available and housing units could develop off Highway 1 — the road being a major contributing factor for the town’s growth because of the 9,000 cars that pass each day.

“We’re just getting started with the growth,” Solon’s Herdliska said.

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