116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For a number of small Linn County communities, the 2020 Census results were disappointing, if not unexpected. Population declines — or at best, zero growth — can hinder expansion plans.
But a number of them are working on upgrading aging infrastructure to lay the foundation, and hope, for future growth in the next decade.
Creativity among its leaders and residents sometimes is what can make the difference.
In the past decade, Linn County overall grew in population, from 211,226 to 230,299. But most of that growth happened in the Cedar Rapids metro area — in Cedar Rapids, Marion, Fairfax and Ely.
Some smaller towns such as Central City and Alburnett showed little to no growth, according to the census data. Other towns — Walford, Bertram, Prairieburg and Walker, for example — lost residents.
Central City, located in northern Linn County and with a budget of slightly over $4 million, gained just seven people, bringing its population to 1,264.
“It’s a little frustrating and a little surprising,” Central City Mayor Adam Griggs said. “We’ve had a couple of housing developments fill out. I expected a little more growth than seven, but it is better than shrinking.”
Griggs is in his second year as Central City’s mayor and was on city council before becoming mayor, but he’s lived in Central City his whole life. He would like to see some growth over the next decade — but not too much.
“We definitely want to grow a little more than seven people over 10 years,” he said. “But we’re not looking for huge growth. I would say the majority of people here don’t want to go gangbuster.
“I’d like to see 20 to 30 percent growth by 2030. That would be really nice.”
Alburnett, also located in the northern part of the county and has a budget of around $1.2 million, saw a growth of only two people over the past 10 years, according to census data, bringing the population to 675.
“The census information doesn’t accurately reflect the growth we’ve seen in town,” Alburnett Mayor Bethany Sarazin said. “The data is only as good as the people who respond and I attribute that to 2020 being a hard year for everyone. … We’ve definitely seen growth over 10 years and we have a new development in town and it’s disappointing that it's not reflecting.”
Sarazin is in her first year as mayor but also served on the city council before that. She’s been a resident in town for 15 years.
Walford Mayor Bill Voss, who has been mayor for almost four years and a resident of the town since 2013, said he was a little surprised to see Walford’s population decrease by 97, to 1,366.
“There’s not a house in town for sale. There’s not a rental property that’s open,” he said. “The town does need to grow. If we don’t have a small amount of growth, it’s going to get to a point where I feel it might reflect back on our expenses.”
Central City and Walford are putting together new comprehensive plans and Alburnett is doing the prep work ahead of the city revamping its comprehensive plan.
Towns addressing aging infrastructure needs in hope to drive growth
But to be able to sustain any growth, these communities — as with many other small towns in the state and across the nation — have to address aging infrastructure to support any potential for future population growth.
“The cost of doing projects of any size is easier when you can spread that cost around,” Central City’s Griggs said. “Ten years and only adding seven people, projects don't get cheaper.”
All communities rely on property tax dollars and money from utility rates to partially pay for infrastructure projects. Without an even slightly growing tax base, city planners and officials note, the challenge to pay for such projects can increase. The cost is easier when there’s more residents to help spread it around.
“We’re looking at evaluating our current infrastructure to see how much growth it can sustain,” Sarazin, Alburnett’s mayor, said. “Water systems, sanitary sewer systems, road analysis for our road conditions — it’s front of mind, but we are just taking the initial steps to get there.”
Voss said in his town, sustaining the streets and wastewater management is top of the list, too.
Walford is in the process of upgrading its wastewater treatment system, which includes a UV system upgrade. The $650,000 project will break ground this week. The city has taken advantage of low-interest loans available to communities from the state to help with the cost.
“The city is not hurting financially,” Voss said.
Less than two years ago, Central City finished its own upgrade to its wastewater treatment plant.
Griggs said the city also is discussing a water tower project for the west side of town in the future.
“That’s been holding up development on that side of the highway and river,” he said.
“I think there are developers that would start if water pressure wasn’t an issue. It’s getting low on acceptable storage capacity, and if we had too much growth before having a new tower, we would be forced to do it anyway.”
The new water-waste system upgrades in place are better for ammonia removal, which can be toxic to aquatic life.
The upgrades cost over $4 million, Griggs said, but the city received some assistance from the state — a low-interest loan and a $500,000 grant.
Along with upgrades to the aging water and sewer lines, Central City plans to take on major street improvement projects over a 10-year period. It’s already finished the first of 10 projects, a full upgrade of the city’s Fourth Street loop near Veterans Memorial Park.
As of right now, the proposed schedule would wrap up in 2030.
“We can do the second project in 2022, but next budget season we will talk about whether we can afford to do the next one after that,” Griggs said. “If we can find a way to afford it, we will do it. If not, all those years will get shifted down until we can afford to do it.”
All three communities have raised utilities or plan to raise utilities to help pay for various infrastructure projects.
“We are looking at current rates and looking at a proposed increase for rates to do it slowly so it’s not drastic,” Sarazin said. “We haven’t made any changes yet but we’re looking into it.”
“We’ve been easing into it and raised rates in 2020,” Voss said. “I don't think we're going to have much more at all.”
Not all on board with Central City comprehensive plan
A steering committee for Central City’s comprehensive plan was formed last summer and multiple open meetings were held as well as a pop-up presentation at some high school football games last fall.
During a meeting this past Wednesday evening, some residents expressed concerns that a current draft map showing neighborhood developments east and west of town proposed development for their property.
“The city is not going to buy large tracts of land and develop houses. … If property owners aren’t supportive of it, then it just won’t be done,” Chris Janson of MSA Professional Services, who is helping the city with its plan, said at the meeting.
The Gericke family’s 110-acre farm east of town, for example, had been presented as land for future development, with streets running through their land.
Bill and Susan Gericke have lived in the area since 1967. They said their first exposure to the plan was seeing it pop up on Facebook. The couple attended the planning meeting on Wednesday and understand the flexibility of a comprehensive plan, but said they wish they would’ve been approached earlier.
“This is our home. We like Central City and we’re not opposed to see it growing,” Susan Gericke, 78, said. “The way it was first talked about made it seem like they were just going to take out land.
“We would like to be approached, but not a plan that encompasses our entire farm.”
Shelley Annis, city clerk and a member of the steering committee, said while it’s good to get public input, it's frustrating when people are on it during the back-end of the process.
“I don’t know how we get the word out more about things,” Annis said.
Amenities, leadership over housing can drive population growth, ISU sociologist says
David Peters, an associate professor of rural sociology at Iowa State University, said what drives population in smaller communities comes down to quality of life and the community’s amenities.
“Schools, adequate day cares, a grocery store, restaurants,” Peters said. “Housing is much more of an individual decision because it really depends on one's means.”
Peters also runs Iowa State University’s Iowa Small Towns Project, in which he’s been tracking 99 towns in Iowa — one for every county — since 1994. Through surveys and interviews, Peters identifies what residents think about the quality of housing, schools, government services and similar issues.
Peters said population growth is a balance, however, as infrastructure improvements are necessary to sustain growing populations.
But those projects aren’t what drives the growth, he said.
“Those towns have slower rates of decline,” Peters said.
“In the majority of thriving towns, city government is a minor player. There are some small towns with 600 people that have multiple community foundations and they do funding drives, work grants, et cetera. These small towns are very creative and it’s not just city tax money doing it all.”
Alburnett just opened its new $1.3 million fire station to replace his old facility from the 1920s. But Sarazin said the city was proactive in purchasing additional property next to the station where it will be building the city’s first city park.
“Our next step is to do surveying on amenities to have in the park, and that will help us nail down that price tag,” she said.
In addition, the new fire station also includes a community room that is able to be rented for small events.
“It’s more than just a fire station. It can become a center of the community,” she said.
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