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Tiffin joins the fastest growing communities in Iowa: Why the sudden uptick?

Fastest-growing community is Iowa's next North Liberty

New homes are seen in a subdevelopment in Tiffin on Monday, June 24, 2019. The town has quickly expanded in the past several years, with new homes being built and rapidly sold. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
New homes are seen in a subdevelopment in Tiffin on Monday, June 24, 2019. The town has quickly expanded in the past several years, with new homes being built and rapidly sold. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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TIFFIN — When Kari and Adam Zupancic were faced with moving their family of five to Johnson County for Adam’s job with Scheels, the couple knew just what they wanted.

Originally from Nebraska and later in Cedar Falls, the couple had lived in smaller towns close to big cities and had fallen in love with the feeling of closeness that living in a small community brings. The couple ultimately narrowed their choices between North Liberty and Tiffin.

“We ultimately decided on Tiffin because it was a great, safe, quiet community with a lot of hometown pride,” said Kari, 35.

The couple and their three children — Payton, 9, Addison, 7, and Finn, 4 — built a home on the north side of Tiffin and moved in January 2018. Since then, the family has emersed itself in the community.

They eat at the local restaurants, play at the parks and splash pad, participate in sports and Girl Scouts in town and all three children will attend Tiffin schools this fall.

“We love the young community,” Kari said. “We love all the kids in the neighborhood, and the people are really friendly.”

The Zupancics are just one of the many families that have flocked to Tiffin in recent years. At the turn of the century, Tiffin’s population sat at 975 people. In 2010, it was 1,947 residents.

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By 2017, the population had skyrocketed to 3,361, a 72.6 percent population change, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it Iowa’s fastest-growing community.

And the growth shows no sign of slowing, with its population expected to hit 4,000 next year.

‘It’s our turn’

When Doug Boldt was ready to get back into municipal work after three years in the private sector, he knew he wanted a challenge. He found that challenge when he was hired as Tiffin’s city administrator, in May 2015.

“You could just tell it was ready to take off,” Boldt said.

All the signs were there. The city’s building official workload — permits and inspections — was getting heavier. Planning and zoning meetings were getting busier. The Clear Creek Amana School District was anticipating enrollment increases.

And, after seeing the growth in neighboring North Liberty and Coralville, there was a sense that Tiffin was next to see a boom in population.

“It’s our turn,” Boldt said.

But why Tiffin? City leaders said the reasons are numerous, but it starts with Tiffin’s location at the crosshairs of interstates 80 and 380 and its proximity to the opportunities presented by large communities.

“It’s location,” Boldt said. “It’s the school district. It’s still that small-town feel in a metro area. You have employment opportunities obviously very close.

“I think the city council has done a good job of focusing on quality-of-life issues.”

Growth in every direction

Seemingly everywhere you look in Tiffin, something is under construction.

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To the south, the city extended Village Drive to make way for residential and commercial development, including a 70-unit 55-and-older housing facility.

The original town at the center of the city is undergoing an urbanization project. The trail system soon will be complete, connecting Tiffin to Kent Park to the west and Coralville to the east.

North of Highway 6, Boldt can point to entire residential developments that have been built and occupied in his four years with the city.

“When I got here in 2015 ... there wasn’t a single house,” he said, overlooking on such development.

To the east, Tiffin’s newest elementary school, Oak Hill Elementary, will open this fall.

Just north of that, work is underway on Park Place, a 265-acre mixed-use project that will include apartments, houses, hotels, offices and restaurants. The development will be close to the new Forevergreen Road interchange on Interstate 380, which is scheduled to be complete this fall and create another entrance to the city.

“There’s quite a bit of excitement centered around that project,” Boldt said. “It’s an additional front door to the city ... . There’s a great opportunity to do some really neat things in that are that are hard to do on an infill.”

‘It’s a good challenge.’

With growth comes challenges.

Boldt said when he started with the Tiffin, there were only three city hall employees. Now, there are seven, and more hires will be necessary in the future.

“We need to continue to keep up with staff additions to at least maintain the level of service we currently provide,” he said.

The city needs a third water well and they’re planning for another water tower.

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There's a give-and-take to the growth Tiffin is experiencing.

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The extra traffic on Highway 6 means working with the Department of Transportation to manage traffic flow and patterns. The city currently has a roundabout going in on Highway, 6 and more traffic lights are anticipated as well.

The city also is planning to add a recreation center and hire a recreation director in the next few years, Boldt noted.

“We are in the process of trying to find a location for the facility,” he said. “We are also working on kind of the general layout of the amenities of the facility.”

While Tiffin is growing, however, it’s all-volunteer fire department is not. Tiffin Fire Chief Brian Detert said the department consistently has had 18 to 24 members for the past 20 years — the same number of volunteers the community had when the population was less than 1,000.

“It’s concerning,” Detert said. “I know the guys try to do the best job they can for the community ... .

“It’s kind of heartbreaking for us. It looks like we’re letting the community down. We just don’t have enough help.”

The fire department built on to its station last year to accommodate two new trucks.

And the fire service has improved along with the city’s growth. Detert said in 2017 Tiffin’s ISO fire insurance rating successfully lowered from a 6 to 5, which helped to lower insurance taxes.

A lifelong resident of Tiffin, Detert — along with being the city’s assistant public works director — has seen a lot of change in his 42 years.

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“Starting in a town that was so small you knew every neighbor and every person in it, I rarely known half the town now,” he said. “It’s a little different for me.”

For Kari Zupancic, the growth is exciting. Still, there are things she’d like to see.

“We’d love to see a recreation center here,” she said. “A public pool would be wonderful for our family. We’d love more businesses to come to town.

“And also, more restaurants, local stores. And a gym would be great.”

A core challenge, City Administrator Boldt said, is maintaining the managed, organized growth, while also maintaining Tiffin’s small town feel.

“It’s a good challenge,” he said. “We’re in a fortunate position with the fact that we are growing. We’re not trying to figure out how to maintain the services we have.

“Some other communities aren’t in that position. They’re losing services, unfortunately.”

In his city, he said, “We’re trying to maintain that small-town feel”

Along with Tiffin, the Clear Creek Amana School District is seeing growth, too. In addition the new Oak Hill Elementary, Tiffin is home to Tiffin Elementary, Clear Creek Amana Middle School and Clear Creek Amana High School.

There are seven schools total in the district.

“Our district is growing,” confirmed Tim Kuehl, Clear Creek Amana superintendent. “We were up 190 students this last year. Our projections are to be over 200-plus a year for the next five.

“That growth means we’re always adding staff, adding facilities, trying to make sure we continue to meet student needs. It’s a way more optimistic challenge than most districts in Iowa are facing, but it’s still a challenge.”

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Much of that growth has been managed through school bonds. The district passed one in 2014 that was used to construct Tiffin Elementary and do additions on Clear Creek middle school and high school.

Another bond was passed in 2017 that was put toward Oak Hill Elementary and adding parking to the middle and high schools. The district also will replace a gym at Clear Creek Elementary in Oxford and do another addition onto the high school.

“We still are a lot smaller than Iowa City or Cedar Rapids,” Kuehl said. “We’re trying to maintain that small-school feel, even though we’re not a small school anymore.”

With the “explosive growth” in Tiffin and anticipated enrollment increases in Coralville and North Liberty — portions of which are in the Clear Creek Amana School District — fueled by the Forevergreen Road interchange, Kuehl anticipates another bond election in 2021 or 2022.

In many ways, the Zupancics’ home is a microcosm for Tiffin’s growth. A development is under construction to the east of the home and Park Place is visible to the east.

Just out the backdoor, grading work is underway for another residential and commercial development, Kari said.

Despite the ever-changing community and growth that’s still to come, Kari said she wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else to live.

“We would have picked Tiffin,” she said. “We’re so glad where we ended up. Our kids are happy and thriving and we love the area we’re in.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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