WEST OKOBOJI, Iowa | One of the most popular public beach settings in the Iowa Great Lakes belongs to one of the smallest cities in this tourism epicenter.
Terrace Park Beach, formerly known as Green's Beach, offers 1,200 feet of soft sand that extends well into the south end of West Lake Okoboji.
The beach is likely the main attraction for tiny West Okoboji, population 289.
"It's got great sand and people come here for it from all over the place," says Ed Rice, the city manager/city clerk for West Okoboji.
Photos of the beach and its fun-seekers decorate West Okoboji City Hall, a $500,000 structure constructed to help one of Iowa's smallest municipal staffs serve a growing public.
Rice, a 28-year city employee, supervises Ben Umscheid, the only other city staff member. Together, these two pick up garbage and handle recycling duties for West Okoboji. The pair also remove snow, answer utilities issues for residents and maintain a park system that has grown from one municipal park to five.
The population grows, too. West Okoboji has nearly 400 housing units. Rice uses a multiplier of five for those dwellings when estimating a head count each July.
Growth on the south edge of West Lake Okoboji has also occurred in home values. When Rice began serving the city 28 years ago, West Okoboji was no more than a quaint burg featuring seasonal cottages and the occasional home.
"We only have a few cottages any more," Rice says, figuring the number of seasonal residences is less than 10. "We do have a few cabins and then some multimillion-dollar homes. We've also added commercial sites."
This might be the lone city hall in Iowa that's adjacent to a brewery. West Okoboji City Hall is next to West O' Beer.
"Another change is the fact construction goes year-round now," says Rice, an Arnolds Park High School graduate who worked as a mechanic for 10 years before joining the city staff. "Crews now enclose a structure and have brick and stone work going on continuously."
While most homes offer year-round occupancy, residents often split their time in West Okoboji with time spent elsewhere, be it Omaha, or Des Moines, or Sioux City, or the Twin Cities. That fact makes counting noses a bit problematic for the U.S. Census Bureau.
"The last Census count had West Okoboji at 289," Rice says. "And the count before that (10 years prior) was 432. It's not the first time we've fluctuated like that. The problem is that the 2010 count was taken in April, and many of those people may have listed their other residence."
Any road-use dollars the city lost because of a loss in population, Rice says, was offset in a rise in property valuation, as real estate in this burg keeps trending higher.
No matter how many people are living in West Okoboji, it's up to Rice and Umscheid to serve them. According to Rice, it's all part of their goal to keep their budget in line and the city's tax levy low.
"Our levy is at $2 per $1,000 valuation for the city," Rice says. "I think we've got the lowest in the state. We also have no debt."
West Okoboji also has one of the best beaches in the state. The area was fenced 30 years ago in an effort to attract and keep young families with children returning to the south side of West Lake Okoboji.
"Before 1985, you could drive right down onto the beach," Rice says. "There were people who would do that, and they'd get stuck. There were also times when beer cans were sitting all over down there."
Gone are the vehicles and the beer cans, replaced by toddlers splashing and wavy as boats ply the blue waters that line the north side of a tiny Iowa town.