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Officials: Keep lines of communication open as county grows

BY QUENTIN MISIAG | JULY 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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When it comes to continued investment in affordable-housing options, racial equality, and infrastructure expansion, officials throughout the county believe one thing for certain is necessary: communication.

Together, more than two dozen officials hailing from Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Hills, Solon, and Tiffin joined several members of the Iowa City School Board, and the Johnson County Board of Supervisors at a joint commission meeting in the North Liberty Library on Tuesday to contemplate and begin laying the framework for the area’s direction.

Most all agreed that the lines of communication must be kept open as these issues continue to rise and develop.

These issues, officials say, stand as only a taste to what will need to be on the palette of concern in the coming years and decades, as one of the state’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas continues.

“Were only becoming larger, and our problems are becoming more complicated,” Iowa City City Councilor Jim Throgmorton said about not just the state’s fifth-largest city, but of the surrounding communities as well.

Race

Throgmorton, alongside Supervisor Rod Sullivan, said the issue of race, particularly pertaining to equality, is pressing because it has overarching effects, from the recently failed justice center measure, and the School District’s long-discussed diversity policy, which aims to bring comprehensive education among all socioeconomic spectrums.

Recent action including the newly released report and public forums by the Coalition for Racial Justice, Throgmorton said, only push the urgency. 

Affordable housing

While Johnson County has experienced decades-long housing gains, few affordable housing units have been a part of that equation, several local officials said.

Supervisor Chairpwoman Janelle Rettig said she has been a part of the discussion for the past 23 years and with Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, stressed that affordable housing needs to be met on a county-wide scale and not restricted to certain parts of the community.

“It’s a regional issue, and I think it’s an issue that can only be addressed the most effectively on a regional basis, Hayek said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Iowa City is the second most expensive city in Iowa to rent, at an average of $742 a month.

Rettig said the area’s local service industry, composed of restaurants, bars, and retail, could suffer if the affordable housing stock does not keep pace with traditional residential development.

“What we know is a lot of people who work in the service industry don’t make enough to even live in our county,” she said. “Housing dollars are going to get tighter.”

Rettig said ideas for a collective housing consortium on educating individuals about affordable housing should now be mulled.

Regional approach to U.S. Special Census

Nearly each area community has witnessed population gains during the last several U.S. census counts, sparking a discussion of applying for a special census in the coming years.

Iowa City City Clerk Mariann Karr said the city of more than 70,000 may apply for the lengthy and costly process because the city could receive benefits from the marketing and educational perspectives.

Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said Coralville has no plans to seek a special census at this time.

Fast-developing North Liberty, which had 13,374 residents as of the 2010 count, is also considering an updated count, Mayor Tom Salm said. Around 16,000 now call the suburb home, he said.

The most recent special census given to North Liberty was in 2004.

Rettig said a county-wide marketing and publicity plan may need to be explored to save all communities monetary investment in the long-run.

School District facility planning process

In light of a July 23 decision to eventual close a nearly 60-year-old Iowa City elementary school, the planning practices for Iowa’s fifth-largest School District was met with slight scrutiny.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, Rettig and School Board member Tuyet Dorau said the district should be mindful as the coming years experience growth, particularly in unincorporated or more rural areas.

Neuzil said among the aspects he would like to see avoided is another situation similar to the one met with the planning and construction of North Liberty’s North Central Junior High and Van Allen Elementary, when sites were chosen by the district and then local government leaders had to scurry to provide the area with sewer, water, and road infrastructure.

And while Hayek said his staff has worked closely with the School District on public infrastructure, Rettig said the same cannot be said for county officials.

“The county hasn’t been consulted at all, and we read it on Twitter,” she said of recent district-expansion plans.

District officials have contended over the last several weeks that closing less-efficient older schools and replacing them with higher-capacity new facilities will not only save the district general-maintenance money, it will help retain teachers.

For the next decade, a new $260.4 million building outline details a new 1,500-student north-corridor high school opening in the fall of 2018, renovation and expansions at several elementary and secondary schools, and three new 500-student elementary schools.

Superintendent Steve Murley is projected to come before the School Board at the end of November with a final sequencing plan, board member Karla Cook said.

Economic development

The one particular point of praise during Monday’s discussions came about through updates on localized economic-development plans.

For Iowa City, that means continued flood mitigation and restoration projects, continued downtown and recreational investment, and improvements to critical thoroughfares, such as the Rochester Avenue bridge project and the $40 million Gateway Project along North Dubuque Street.

“We’ve got a lot of dirt flying,” Hayek said.

One key point of contention lies in the continual battle against the controversial 21-ordinance, he said, setting “up another fight.”

Officials in North Liberty, Coralville, Hills, Solon, and Tiffin said even the smallest of projects underway now will help set the pace for growth in the coming decades.

Major reconstruction and traffic lane expansion is set to continue along the often-congested Highway 965 in North Liberty through the end of the year.

Both the towns of Solon and Tiffin are set to move into new City Hall spaces in the coming months, while seeing further bike trail connectivity and a handful of new commercial businesses.
Iowa City is set to host the next commission meeting, scheduled for Oct. 28.


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