Diamond in the Rough
Transforming Jefferson One Building at a Time
If you talk to Jefferson building official Nick Sorensen, you’ll quickly get an idea of how much pride he gets out of turning a building that’s decrepit into a completely transformed gem. No project is too big, too beat up or too old to tackle. He’s dealt with everything from extensive fire damage to 40,000 gallons of water destroying the second floor of a project.
For Sorensen, restoring the town of Jefferson one building at a time is personal. He looks at each project as a chance to preserve and restore his small town, helping to attract outsiders to the community he calls home.
Sorensen grew up on a farm two miles outside of nearby Exira, where he assisted his father with masonry side-jobs while in high school. He also was hired to help his retired grandfather with small jobs around town. Fixing objects that had grown defunct became a skill for Sorensen that he would lean on later in life. “I didn’t realize it, but I was starting to get an appreciation for older structures. Not only downtown buildings, but homes,” Sorensen said.
Years later while living in Jefferson, Sorensen applied for the job of building inspector. When he moved to town in 2003, the community was in good shape. The square had four bars, several eating establishments and kids constantly cruised around the loop. Over the years, those places deteriorated until the downtown area was a shell of its former self. In other words, Sorensen had a long list ahead of him.
Sorensen got his start with his first dilapidated building in a unique way. A couple originally from Jefferson moved away and started a business. They later returned home to be closer to family and wanted to move their business to a specific historic building that held special meaning to this Jefferson couple. Unfortunately, it was in rough shape, with mold covering the walls and the roof caving in on itself.
Using private and public partnerships that Sorensen calls the “secret recipe,” tax-increment financing and a grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, he was able to provide the couple with a building that was a better fit. “We were able to save one from falling in on itself. And now it’s got second story apartments that they live in and they operate the business down below, and it’s very successful,” said Sorensen.
That’s just one of many success stories Sorenson has added to his list over the years. He has played an integral part in restoring numerous historic properties in the city, but he’s quick to point out that he leans on teamwork, partnerships and help from volunteers whenever he can get it. He even compared the level of teamwork in Jefferson to one famous group of superheroes.
“For all the Marvel fans out there, it’s kind of like ‘Avengers assemble.’ We’ve got a project, let’s get that team together,” Sorensen said. “What I love most about Jefferson is our volunteer group. I mean, the selflessness. You don’t worry about the ‘I’s,’ you worry about the ‘we’s.’”
Listen to the rest of Nick’s story on the Rural Revival podcast.