CLARENCE — Many drivers have passed through Clarence over the years without even realizing it.
The small town of about 1,000 residents east of Mount Vernon with a downtown on Highway 30 has a prime location — just a 45-minute drive to Cedar Rapids or Davenport. But Mayor Jeric Armstrong, 34, said he often gets asked while visiting Cedar Rapids where he’s from and where exactly Clarence falls on a map.
“I’ve gotten that I can’t even count how many times over the years,” Armstrong said. “When you’re 45 minutes from a bigger city, you would think a lot of people would know where Clarence was, but maybe not. I guess if you’re ever through Clarence, stop by and visit, visit our park. Take advantage of our restaurants and our downtown businesses.”
In recent years, Armstrong, whose lived in the town his whole life, said Clarence has attracted some younger families. And he hopes new features like a splash pad, which opened in June 2018 in the 16-acre Clarence Community Park, will draw visitors from surrounding communities as well.
While a splash pad might be a physically small facilities improvement, it certainly isn’t the only one that’s come under Armstrong’s tenure — which totals 12 years as either a council member or mayor.
A new public library building opened in 2016 and Armstrong served on its building committee. The perk of the project, Armstrong said, is the building was paid for by grants and donations, not taxpayer dollars.
Armstrong, who has served as training officer for the city’s fire department and studied fire science at Kirkwood Community College, hopes to do something similar to build new fire station. The current station is in City Hall and as trucks get larger, it’s becoming more difficult to fit equipment inside the 1969 building.
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The fire department has formed a building committee and is currently about three-quarters to its fundraising goal, Armstrong said. The city received a donated lot by River Valley Co-op at the intersection of Seventh Street and Lombard Street, which is Highway 30. The new building is expected to cost about $350,000.
“We’ve got an ambulance service, a fire service, and we’ve got a full-time police officer, which many towns of 1,000 and under don’t have a police officer anymore,” Armstrong said, adding that it’s a budgeting priority for the council every year. “I think having all those services sets Clarence apart from a lot of our other neighboring smaller communities.”
Clarence’s downtown is also a 2017 Main Street Iowa district, which opens up grant and economic development opportunities. Downtown had struggled with a lack of maintenance over the years because of the expense of upkeeping its old buildings.
Clarence isn’t without its challenges, though. Armstrong said the town lost its only grocery store about 10 years ago and community committees have discussed wanting to get one back in town.
The Iowa Department of Transportation is also developing a planning study of Highway 30 east of Lisbon to just west of DeWitt. Among the goals of the study are to determine whether Highway 30 should remain on the current alignment or bypass the communities on the current highway.
“That may change the outlook of Clarence in the future,” Armstrong said, adding if the highway does bypass the downtown, it could create further expansion near the new highway. “Which is kind of exciting, but also nerve-wracking to the people of Clarence. ... We’ve been used to having Highway 30 traffic going through our downtown for years. And bypassing it, I think some people have some questions.”
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