BLOOMFIELD, Iowa – A lot of people were paying attention to Bloomfield, in southern Iowa, a few years ago.
“Bloomfield sets sustainable design example for Iowa,” a Jan. 1, 2016, Des Moines Register headline read above a story about a new solar power project to supplement the power Bloomfield’s municipal utility buys from Southern Iowa Electric.
“Governor Reynolds, Lt. Governor Gregg Celebrate Bloomfield’s New Solar Project,” the Iowa Department of Economic Development and Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office titled an Aug. 1, 2018, news release. “Bloomfield has demonstrated exactly the type of innovative and forward thinking we hoped to foster when we released the Iowa Energy Plan in December 2016,” Reynolds said in that release.
But disagreement about the solar array, just outside the town’s city limits to the west, exists.
“I’m not saying it was bad,” Dan Wiegand, the town’s mayor since the start of 2018, said in an IowaWatch interview. “I just don’t know if the timing was right.”
Success in a small town doesn’t mean agreeing on everything. Bloomfield, the Davis County seat and growing to 2,682 people in the 2020 census, could be proof.
IowaWatch spent four months investigating small towns in Iowa that buck the general trend in rural America of declining populations, empty Main Streets or struggling schools. In Bloomfield, several examples of bucking the trend by growing from 2,640 people in 2010 are evident, including efforts that might not win over everyone in town.
Wiegand said his concern was solar’s cost, although solar supporters in town say the city only pays for energy it uses from the 5,400-panel, 1.86 megawatt array.
Bloomfield is a friendly town, Wiegand said, where people know each other. He calls it “slow, progressive.”
“We got to stay in our wheelhouse,” he said. “We got to stay within our means, which I think we have.”
The tension between that slower approach and those in town who say Bloomfield needs to do more now is noticeable during a summer visit.
“The last four years, for us, have been tough,” Doug Dixon, a Bloomfield entrepreneur and member of the Davis County community school board, told IowaWatch. He is part of the local business development group, Bloomfield Main Street, that advocates particularly for downtown businesses but also other companies in town.
Downtown’s streets and sidewalks need to be fixed, Dixon said, and the city had a plan for doing that when it adopted plans to revamp the downtown streets, sidewalks and parking spaces in 2017. The project was to have cost $4.2 million. The city used grants and city funds to put the first $500,000 into the project. Plans were drawn up and different traffic configurations were tested.
“We’ve got a shovel-ready project,” Dixon said.
City plans called for seeking Community Development Block Grants, money from tax increment financing, water quality initiative grants and other money from federal, state and local government. Chris Ball, the town’s interim public works director at the time, said the city had state and federal grants for $650,000 lined up to start construction.
But, the City Council’s make-up changed in January 2018 and when the new council voted 3-to-2 that year to proceed with the project, Wiegand vetoed the proposal, saying in a veto letter that its deadlines were not attainable. Four votes were needed to override the veto. The project came to an abrupt halt.
Ball, now the local energy solutions provider for Simpleray, which runs the solar array outside of town, said giving up access to the grants was only part of his overall displeasure with what happened. He said city officials had spent several years working with state development officials on the streetscape project. “A lot of those relationships were really damaged in that process,” he said about the veto.
Bloomfield’s solar project grew out of local interest in a geothermal system that the town of West Union, in northeast Iowa’s Fayette County, started to test as an efficient way to provide clean energy to downtown businesses. West Union started exploring in 2020 whether its geothermal system can be expanded to the entire town of 2,490 people.
Ball, Dixon and two council members from Bloomfield developed the local idea for solar power during a visit to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization working on ways to create clean energy. “It was pretty cool,” Ball said. “Personally, for me, it was really gratifying to be able to hear those ideas and to see how they could have a positive impact on a place that I cared about.”
Bloomfield has a municipal utility, which gets 10% of its power from Simpleray and the rest from Southern Iowa Electric Cooperative. Simpleray could provide more but the solar array, activated in December 2017, and the town’s system aren’t set up in a way that the city can sell unused power back to Simpleray, Ball said.
Ball said, though, that the city only pays Simpleray for power it uses from the solar array. That’s an important point for him because of skepticism he hears about the venture into solar, its costs and stated goal of being energy independent by 2030.
“Some communities get stuck in, and I think this is where Bloomfield is right now, ‘we don’t want change, we like it the way it is.’ But that’s a fallacy, right? It’s going to change. So, what do you want that to look like? How are you going to make it happen?”
Despite the diverse political thought on how the town should move forward, projects have been undertaken. Wiegand said the city was finishing $8 million worth of sewer treatment improvements, using increased sewer rates to pay for it while lowering city taxes. He said the city can give local businesses incentives such as lower taxes, lower city debt and efficient government.
He also noted that Bloomfield has an incentive program to build 10 new houses as people move town, especially to work at a new home because of growing reliance on remote working since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The city gives eligible developers or individuals $10,000 for a single-family or two-family home costing $150,000 to $200,000; $12,500 for homes valued at $200,000 to $300,000 and $15,000 for homes worth $300,000 or more.
“We need housing so we’ve tried to come up with a plan,” Wiegand said.
Also, Bloomfield has been rehabilitating seven buildings in its historic district this summer so that they are available for future rental property. Tammy Roberts, the city’s community development director, said the town works with Indian Hills Community College and the Future Iowa Ready program for trained, skilled labor.
Roberts moved into her city position last year after working with Bloomfield Main Street. She originally is from Bloomfield but moved away for a while before returning to town. She said the town has a good group of entrepreneurs, ecosystem and culture.
“Our focus is very defined and very clear,” Roberts said.
Beyond work being done by business and city leaders, Dixon said a strong school system, and young people coming out of it and staying in town, likely are key reasons Bloomfield’s population grew from 2,640 residents in 2010 to 2,682 in the 2020 census.
The Davis County Community School District ranks above average in academics and other categories that come from various national measurements for things like graduation rates, Common Core achievement, attendance, and student and parent surveys.
Those young people are going to want a safe town, with recreation, places to eat and other quality of life amenities, Dixon said. “I think the driver will be younger people having kids,” he said.
IowaWatch reporting in this project was made possible by support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.