Little big town: North Liberty grows onto its own
Once growing due to its geography, city becoming its own destination
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NORTH LIBERTY — In 1960, when Barb Dixon moved here in her early 20s to complete school at the University of Iowa, she remembers a small bedroom community with a grocer, a diner, a bank and a gas station.
“And there was nothing else in the town,” she recalled, “just cornfields all around.”
These days, Dixon, 79, steers clear of the roads in the early mornings to avoid the rush hour going on outside her door.
“It’s hard to even get my car backed out of my garage because there’s so much traffic on Jones (Boulevard),” she said. “But that’s OK. That’s just part of progress.”
North Liberty certainly isn’t as small as it used to be, now nearly rivaling Coralville in size — an estimated 18,228 compared with Coralville’s 20,608. To be sure, part of that growth has been fueled by a lower cost of living than in larger cities and because North Liberty presents itself as a good middle ground for families whose spouses need to commute in opposite directions.
But now residents are being drawn, too, because North Liberty has grown into a destination on its own right.
“It very much was a place that families had moved when mom worked in Iowa City and dad worked in Cedar Rapids, and I think we saw a lot of those commuters. And we certainly still have those,” said Nick Bergus, the city’s communication director. “But I think we see a lot of people who are invested in and working in and living in and playing in North Liberty,”
Realtor Daphne Patton moved to the city in 2005, about the time of a spike in home construction. She said back then, North Liberty was just a “one-stoplight” town.
“I think initially people were choosing North Liberty because you could get more for your money and your taxes were a little bit less,” Patton said. “And now I have clients who are moving there because of the amenities.”
Longtime resident Sandra Gay, 72, originally from Chicago suburb, has had a front-row seat to the city’s growth.
When she moved to a new subdivision house 41 years ago, the area across the street was farmland. Now, when she looks out her front window, she sees dozens of newly built homes, which she said started going up about two or three years ago.
“I like the way it’s grown. I was not raised in a small town so small town is something I learned about,” Gay said. “What I like, and I hope it stays this way, North Liberty to me has always been resident-friendly. ... The city caters to the community, to the residents.”
And many of those residents are families with children.
Sarah Conner, 37, grew up in the town. She and her classmates would stop by Kozer’s Grocery Store at 25 E. Cherry Street — now Heyn’s Ice Cream — to get candy before school.
She left the small town to attend the UI, then returned — and by now, the city was larger.
She and her husband, Jon, became just one of the many couples to move to North Liberty and start families.
“I would say a majority of houses have children,” Conner said. “I just think it’s such a young town.”
Her neighbors are within 10 years of each other, she said.
“They’re my best friends. ... Like we just take care of each other’s dogs. Our kids run around all over the place. It’s great.”
Census data seems to back up what Conner believes about North Liberty’s demographics. North Liberty’s percentage of the population under 5 is 11,7, much higher than the state’s average of 6.6, according to the 2010 Census. Percentages of residents under 18 and over 65 don’t match up with the state average, either. North Liberty has roughly 28 percent of its population under 18 — compared with 23.9 percent statewide — and 3.5 percent over 65 — compared with 14.9 percent.
Additionally, single-family detached homes have been a significant driver of construction in North Liberty. From 2000 to 2005, which includes the housing bubble, the total construction value of these new homes spiked from about $7.2 to roughly $29 million. Since 2005, that number has leveled off, but still is between about $22 and $26 million.
While the city has no traditional downtown, its business scene has grown more vibrant than a half century ago.
The city now has an online business directory that’s four pages long, has office parks lining thoroughfares and has had restaurants like Vito’s and Cafe Muse open within the last year.
CJ Huang, owner of Cafe Muse, said he and his wife got tired of the limited food options in town. He said part of the reason he wanted to open a food industry business was because he felt they were “lagging behind the population growth.”
North Liberty’s building permit reports show that the construction value of new commercial and industrial business in 2015, about $10.5 million, was almost double that of 2010.
“Especially just with how the community was growing and changing, I saw real potential there,” said Jeanna Hegewald, who opened the Portraits by Jeanna photo studio, which emphasizes children and family photos. “So I really didn’t look anywhere else.”
Major population growth hasn’t come without challenges for North Liberty, including traffic congestion.
In recent years, the city has made moves to calm congestion, especially by widening West Penn Street, the only artery on and off Interstate 380 in town. While a large section of West Penn Street was widened last year, city spokesman Bergus said a stretch still is left for work this year.
Perhaps the largest project, however, will be the I-380 interchange planned for Forevergreen Road, which Bergus said will foster growth on the city’s west side. The Iowa Department of Transportation hopes to bid out the project this year, Bergus said, and plans a public meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday in the North Liberty Recreation Center.
While the city hasn’t developed a true downtown or town square, some residents and business owners don’t necessarily seem to mind.
“The city kind of grew naturally out of a farm community, so you can’t really force the idea of a downtown onto somewhere that didn’t have it before,” Huang said.
From the city’s standpoint, the goal is to manage the growth.
“We’ve obviously come a long way from that small rural town that we used to be and we’ve come a long way really quickly,” Bergus said. “I think that the growth is going to continue to come and the goal is to plan for it and it and do it smart.”
Bergus said the city expects its next growth spurt to come on its east side, near where the Liberty High School will open this fall. He said the city has begun spending on projects like sewer and road improvements.
“North Liberty can actually about double its population without having to expand its borders at this point, which is pretty impressive. So we’ve got a lot of real estate. We’ve got a lot of room for growth there on that east side right around Dubuque Street and the high school,” Bergus said.
In that particular area, North Liberty is moving to the second phase of North Liberty Road paving and realignment work this year.
The city also is working to grow its utilities. Bergus said the city is working to build a new water treatment plant, digging new wells and expanding the wastewater treatment plant.
City Council member Brian Wayson said the council plans for more growth. He estimated capacity for the updated wastewater treatment plant at close to 28,000 customers, and the new water treatment plant to serve about as many.
The council has discussed a potential new police station, and the city has awarded building permits for close to $5 million worth of new construction projects.
“I don’t think we’ve quite yet set our identity, City Council member Jim Sayre said. “I think we’re moving toward an identity, which is not just a bedroom community.”
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North Liberty's population growth
Coralville's 2015 population is an estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau while North Liberty's 2015 population was calculated by a special city census. North Liberty's 2015 U.S. Census Bureau estimate is 15,931 people.