IN THE TRENCHES
By ANDREW MCGINN
Sometimes, economic development smells a lot like 434-day-old chicken inside a cooler with no electricity.
To be fair, Nick Sorensen isn’t exactly sure what kind of food he hauled April 5 out of Jefferson’s defunct Pizza Ranch — it was too far gone to tell, frankly.
But the stench nearly overpowered the city crew Sorensen assembled last Wednesday to begin returning the building — site of an arson on Jan. 26, 2016 — to a clean shell more palatable to a private developer.
“Because I roped them into it, I handled that stuff,” Sorensen, the city of Jefferson’s building inspector and code enforcement officer, explained a day later inside his office at City Hall.
Sorensen said there’s interest in the building, “but not the way it sits.”
The 36-year-old former cop, who switched careers nearly two years ago, will get the building where it needs to be.
He’s done it before — the century-old former pool hall at 111 E. Lincoln Way, which sat vacant for years after last serving as a women’s clothing store, is well on its way to becoming a private business again after he single-handedly gutted it.
Efforts like that convinced Jefferson Matters: Main Street, the chief advocacy group for downtown vitality, to nominate Sorensen for its 2016 Leadership Award.
Sorensen accepted the award Friday from Gov. Terry Branstad at the 31st annual Main Street Iowa Awards Celebration at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines.
Jefferson also won two major competitive state awards, with Jefferson Matters: Main Street winning the Greatest Game Changer Award for its April 2015 Empty Building Tour, which challenged developers to imagine the possibilities of investing downtown.
Home State Bank won the Outstanding Business Award for its commitment to the historic Main Street District.
Iowa is home to 52 state-designated Main Street communities, from Dunlap to Dubuque and Woodbine to Waterloo.
Jefferson was accepted into the Main Street program in 2012.
“You can feel the momentum,” said Sorensen, a native of Exira in Audubon County who came to Jefferson in 2003 to serve on the local police force. “We have a corner to turn, and we’re about to turn it.”
A city streetscape project laid the groundwork, according to Sorensen, but “it’s hard to build off that if you don’t have good buildings,” he said.
That belief has inspired Sorensen to take an unconventional approach to his job as the city’s third full-time building inspector.
His is a world of codes, laws, ordinances, permits, specifications and standards.
Nowhere does it say he has to get this dirty.
“He’s far exceeding most of our expectations,” City Councilman Dave Sloan said this week.
Councilman Gary Von Ahsen called him an “invaluable employee of the city” unlike any building inspector before.
“We’ve had good people, but most of them have been confined to the office,” Von Ahsen said. “They haven’t been in the trenches like he is.”
Then again, it’s entirely possible the city has never owned this much commercial real estate before.
Since May 2015, the city has acquired four vacant buildings, each seen as key to keeping Jefferson’s historic Square and vicinity intact.
The first — 205 N. Wilson Ave. — was acquired as a result of the Empty Building Tour.
The most recent — the former Pizza Ranch, located just across the street at 206 N. Wilson Ave. — was acquired last month.
Sorensen, who has a background in construction alongside police work, had tracked down embattled Pizza Ranch owner Rob Schultz, who took a plea deal to avoid prison on a felony arson charge, with two options: Either he could gift his scorched building to the city, or else he’d be on the hook to clean up the building to the tune of $80,000 to $90,000.
The city also owns the 137-year-old building at 200 E. State St. that anchors the northeast corner of the Square.
A foreclosure, a bank in California initially wanted $76,000 for it.
After Sorensen sent them pictures of it, they agreed to sell it instead for $100 in spring 2016.
The city is hoping its success with 111 E. Lincoln Way — which it acquired in September 2015 for $50 — can be replicated.
“Look at the turnaround once that got into private hands,” Sorensen said.
The first of the buildings to be readied for sale, Rosie and Ray Tucker are currently at work finishing the building to house their business specializing in refurbished home decor.
“You have to see the potential behind it,” Sorensen said, “and it was there.”
He personally uncovered the building’s original tin ceiling — a feature that hadn’t seen the light of day since at least the early 1970s, when the women’s clothing chain Mode O’ Day covered it with a drop ceiling.
The city’s role in acquiring buildings is motivated in large part by wanting to get once-empty buildings back on the tax rolls.
As Sorensen explains, it would have cost the city $80,000 to demolish the building at 111 E. Lincoln Way, and even then, it’s unlikely any new developer would be interested in a lot so narrow.
“The city’s in it for the long haul,” he said, “not just tomorrow.”
Not only that, but Sorensen once heard it said that a downtown is like a community’s smile.
“Removing a building,” he said, “is like removing a tooth.”
And so to keep costs as low as possible, Sorensen does as much of the stabilization work himself.
When work begins in May on a 16-building Community Development Block Grant project — a $1 million renovation of downtown building facades — Sorensen will have the relatively easy job of acting as one of the liaisons between contractors and local business owners.
On the surface, Sorensen would seem to be ripe for burnout.
In reality, he’s been known to take a “mental health day” from the office to go and rip out moldy drywall.
To Von Ahsen, that shows to prospective investors the city of Jefferson is a willing partner in downtown redevelopment.
Sorensen’s own willingness to roll up his sleeves is itself a call to arms for volunteers.
“Nick is a hands-on leader who has inspired others to get involved,” Jefferson Matters: Main Street wrote in its nomination of Sorensen for the Leadership Award.
Jefferson’s acceptance five years ago into the Main Street program was the catalyst the city needed, according to Sorensen.
“It opened eyes that we have a beautiful square,” he said. “It needs a little work, but we’re onto something.”
While he said “Main Street Iowa is not for every community,” in Jefferson at least, Sorensen freely admits he can hardly keep up with the volunteers.
“There are people just chomping at the bit to get in there to go to work,” he said of the Pizza Ranch building, whose unified facade actually masks three separate storefronts dating to 1900.
He cites the ongoing work across the street at 205 N. Wilson Ave., believed to have been built sometime between 1894 and 1909.
One night, he said, nine volunteers hauled out six tons of second-story plaster and lath in five-gallon buckets.
“This is real down and dirty stuff we’re doing,” Sorensen said.
“I need them,” he added, “way more than they need me.”
The work is, at times, daunting.
Just 10 days after the city got the building at 205 N. Wilson insured, Sorensen said, a brick parapet literally fell apart, a reminder of what happens when building owners neglect tuck-pointing.
“It’s always the roof and the brickwork,” he said.
Sorensen did, however, draw the line at letting volunteers help in gutting 111 E. Lincoln Way because of mold.
“That’s a hole straight into it,” he said, interpreting a photo he took of the roof before it was replaced.
All of that rain and snow led to mold that in turn essentially devoured the walls, turning the former dressing rooms black.
“Some of these pictures remind me of ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ ” Sorensen joked, clicking through a series of photos of the building’s second-story apartment, which the Tuckers will call home once restoration is complete.
For his part, Sorensen downplays his role in downtown Jefferson’s transformation.
“I’m just an instrument of the (city) council,” he said.
His job, he said, is to ensure that properties are safe.
“In the job description,” he noted with a knowing grin, “it does say other duties as assigned.”
Main Street Iowa awards for Jefferson:
Greatest Game Changer Award: Empty Building Tour
Outstanding Business Award: Home State Bank
Leadership Award: Nick Sorensen