116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
TIFFIN — When Steve Berner moved to Tiffin in 1997, the city’s population was about 500.
Berner, a banker, moved from the Quad Cities as Solon State Bank was preparing to open a branch office in Tiffin.
“I was actually surprised that a bank was going to build in Tiffin because when I went to college at the University (of Iowa), Tiffin was not a very popular town, I guess you could say,” Berner said. “When they came to me in ‘97, I didn't realize Tiffin was starting to grow.”
From there, he got involved with the city “right away” as a part of the Planning and Zoning Commission. He was on the panel for about 14 years and served as chairman for most of the time before being elected as mayor in 2012.
Berner, who now has been mayor for nearly a decade and a key figure in staying ahead of the city’s growth, is seeking his sixth two-year term as mayor. He’s running unopposed for re-election on Nov. 2.
The city now has more than 4,500 residents as of 2020, according the U.S. Census — and doesn’t expect the growth to stop any time soon.
“The growth has been fantastic,” Berner said. “It brings a lot of good things to the town of Tiffin, but it does bring some growing pains as well.”
Fastest growing in Iowa
The city’s population has been doubling decade after decade starting in 1990.
According to census numbers, Tiffin’s population more than doubled from 1990 to 2000, going from 460 residents to 975 residents. That growth continued and the population nearly doubled again in the 10 years that followed, increasing to 1,947 residents in 2010.
The most recent census numbers showed another more than doubling as the city grew 131.7 percent to 4,512 residents in 2020. Measured by percentage rate of growth, Tiffin is the fastest growing city in Iowa.
When City Administrator Doug Boldt took the job in 2015, he could tell Tiffin was ready to “grow and expand even more.”
“Our projection for 2030 is to double yet again,” Boldt said. “ … There’s a lot that can happen in the next eight to nine years but to think that we would get another double at about 9,000 — I think that's very possible.”
The city’s updated comprehensive plan predicts the population to continue to increase at rates around 150 percent, which could mean 12,168 residents in 2030.
Such growth has prompted the need for more housing — lots more.
“We started with a town of 400, and there's only 20 houses in the old part of town,” Berner said. "We don’t have stock — it's all new. Our only way to get people to move to town is brand-new housing.“
That can be a challenge when it comes to providing affordable housing, Berner said, but he added that the city has taken steps. For instance, Boldt said, the city added a section to its zoning code to include smaller, single-family dwelling blocks to encourage developers to build smaller homes in an effort to keep costs down.
An area where the city anticipates a “significant amount of growth” is the Park Place development, Boldt said. The 265-acre mixed-use development just off Interstate 380 is underway and will feature entertainment, restaurants and shopping, as well as apartment units and single-family lots, according to the Park Place website.
Also part of the development is a Toptracer golf facility. “That's just a tremendously huge opportunity for Tiffin,” Berner said. Other announced Park Place tenants are Farmers State Bank, iGYM and Speedy Mike’s car wash.
Berner said there is “constant planning” between him, Boldt and the Tiffin City Council to stay ahead of the growth and address the increased demand on the city’s water, sewer and street infrastructure.
One of the first things Berner pushed for when he became mayor was developing a comprehensive plan for the city and hiring a city administrator, as well as building a city hall.
“There was a lot of financial things when I first became mayor that had to be straightened out, which we brought on a city administrator with the expertise to work on finances for the town,” Berner said. “If we never did that, we would be behind the eight ball.”
The infrastructure work is among what Berner is most proud during his time as mayor. He highlighted the city building a water tower, expanding the sewer plant and improving traffic flow with new streets.
His next term will be “more of the same,” Berner said. On the horizon is a water plant expansion, additional water tower, drilling a third water well and starting discussions about the next sewer plant expansion.
There is also an effort to upgrade the city’s emergency services — police, fire and ambulance — as additional traffic is brought into town through the construction on the Interstate 80/380 interchange, Boldt added.
“We're slowly working on those to make sure that they're able to grow with us as well and knowing when to make certain adjustments and improvements,” Boldt said.
Berner said every year since he’s been mayor the city has increased the number of hours it contracts with the Johnson County Sheriff’s office for policing. Though the city’s call volume is “very low,” Berner said as the population and commercial activity in town grows, the need for police enforcement will likely increase.
The city hired a consultant to provide a comparison of two options: opening a substation with the sheriff’s office or transitioning to a city police department. The Sheriff’s Office is currently working with the city of Solon to open a satellite office.
“Both of (those options) are probably a few years down the road, … but we're not in a huge hurry,” Berner said. Boldt said the consultant report will help the city plan for the next 10 years as the conversation about next steps continues.
Focusing on recreation
As the city continues to grow, there’s an added focus on public recreation. The next big project — and one of Berner’s goals for his next term — is building a recreation center.
The city released a community survey in 2018 to gauge interest for a recreation facility. About 89 percent of the respondents favored the idea.
“That is a priority for a lot of people moving to Tiffin, so it's my priority as well,” Berner said.
In early 2020, Boldt told The Gazette the recreation center could feature a gymnasium with a walking track above it, fitness rooms, areas to do cardio and weight lifting, and possibly a pool. The project was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic but is “starting to resurface a little bit,” Boldt said.
The city has resumed conversations with the Clear Creek Amana School District to see if it would be interested in partnering to have a pool included, since that would impact the design, Boldt said.
Recreation is also a big part of keeping current residents in town, in addition to attracting new ones, Boldt said.
Tiffin is just a short drive away from Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty — a location that Boldt said is “pretty perfect,” especially for people who want to live somewhere with a small-town feel but still have access to what the other cities have to offer.
“One of the things that Tiffin does a good job of, which has been a priority of the mayor and council, is to provide a quality of life,” Boldt said. “Our niche is to provide quality-wise amenities.”
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