By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, April 30, 2020 — When the advance agenda for this week’s Jefferson City Council meeting reported that one of Iowa’s greatest wrestlers, T.J. Sebolt, would present an economic development proposal, I immediately reserved a chair at the media table — although that really turned out to be a spot on the council’s pandemic-forced Zoom teleconference. The 32-year-old Sebolt wants to move his young family and their three businesses — including his acclaimed Sebolt Wrestling Academy — to Jefferson.
That is confirmation of an old economic development maxim, that success is contagious.
For the last five years or so, projects have been blooming in Jefferson and Greene County here in west central Iowa. We’re getting accustomed to developers wanting to be part of it. “This is recognition of how our community is viewed out there now,” said Norm Fandel, president of Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation. “The word is out that we’re innovative and that we’re looking for good ideas.”
From our rapidly expanding home-grown industries, to Wild Rose Casino & Resort, to “The Forge” information technology hub, to huge new installations for wind-generated electrical energy, to a new high school with a Career Academy, to restoration and redevelopment of Jefferson’s historic courthouse square, to the adaptation of next-generation agricultural practices, this area is indeed a development hot spot.
T.J. Sebolt, a Centerville native and one of the all-time greats in Iowa high school wrestling, is coaching now, and wants to bring his Sebolt Wrestling Academy to Jefferson.
Still, it was a surprise when T.J. Sebolt — Iowa’s winningest high school wrestler ever at the time of his 2006 graduation with a 207-1 record and four state championships for Centerville High — showed up with his business ideas. No, not as big a surprise as when Des Moines business magnate Gary Kirke showed up in 2014 wanting to build the casino and resort here, but still very significant.
If Jefferson can now land the Sebolt Wrestling Academy, T.J. told the city council, “we’ll have 70 kids or more, from three or four states and all across Iowa, coming through here a couple times a week. Their parents bring them, and those parents, as you can imagine, don’t necessarily want to watch wrestling workouts for several hours every time they come here. They’ll be looking for other things to do while they’re here, so that will help your restaurants, gas stations, movie theater, businesses around the community, and sometimes your motels.”
Those aren’t just hope and projections.
The Sebolt Wrestling Academy is now in its 11th year of operation, currently in rented facilities at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City, where T.J. is also an assistant coach in that college’s wrestling program, and at Iowa State University in Ames. His proposal is to consolidate those operations into one, here in Jefferson, in a building that he would own and thus be able to control its usage schedule.
“The success of SWA comes in the form of young athletes looking to become better wrestlers,” Sebolt wrote in a letter to Ken Paxton, executive director of the Greene County Development Corporation.. “I get the privilege to coach nearly 85 kids, with several that have stood atop the podium at not only the state level but also at the national level during their careers.
“At this time, there are five SWA athletes that have made NCAA Division I college commits, just this year alone. In the 2020 Iowa High School State Wrestling Championships, SWA had 10 state champions, eight runners-up and 32 placers across Classes 1A, 2A and 3A.”
The academy’s “Elite Level” wrestlers, of high school age and just younger, pay $150 per month, with discounts for a second and third wrestler from the same family, and their instruction is year ’round. The “Beginner Level” wrestlers pay $100 month for a program that runs from November thru February. Also, private lessons are offered year ’round for $25 per wrestler. Sebolt has several assistant coaches who work with him, all of them good wrestlers in their competitive years, one of those being his father and financial partner, Scott Sebolt, a building contractor who still lives in Centerville.
The program, especially at the elite level, is very rigorous and “is not for everybody,” T.J. Sebolt told the city council. “I tell these kids I want them to become the best possible version of themselves. I want to help get them ready for the next level. Besides the national teams, that next level for a lot of them is going to be for an NCAA Division I program.”
The Jefferson Fieldhouse, located just off the square.
The proposal is for all this to happen at the Jefferson Fieldhouse, a large supermarket in the long-ago which was transformed into a sports training facility a half-dozen years ago. It sits on a quarter-block that is just one block south of the courthouse square. It has been owned and operated the last four years by the Greene County Youth Athletic Association, an organization of parents and volunteers whose mission is to organize and direct youth sports here.
“One thing we’ve learned in the last couple years is that we don’t want to be in the business of building ownership,” said Jamie Daubendiek, past-president of the GCYAA who is now handing off leadership to Travis Warnke. Their one regularly-paying tenant has been the Greene County Community Schools, which rented space for its own wrestling program. However, the school’s need for that space is ending when the new high school opens late this summer — with its own wrestling room.
T.J. Sebolt said five things have drawn him to Jefferson: 1) The desire he and his wife Bethany Sebolt have to raise their daughters Mila and Nova in a small town; 2) the availability, at a reasonable cost, of the Fieldhouse; 3) Jefferson’s central location in Iowa and the town’s reputation for welcoming development; 4) encouragement from the Robbins and Dennhardt families, both from Greene County and both with boys in the SWA’s “elite” training program, and 5) enthusiasm of Bethany Sebolt’s aunt and uncle, Ann and Jim Ober, who live in Jefferson. Jim is vice-president for manufacturing at Scranton Manufacturing and is treasurer of the Greene County Development group.
The development group, in its own report to the city council, noted that it has been working with the Sebolts and the GCYAA on the purchase of the Fieldhouse, and added, “The new business would attract athletes from all over the state and be an excellent addition to help support our other businesses. The project is moving forward.”
The Sebolts have made a purchase offer of $138,750, T.J.’s letter said, with plans to invest another $40,000 for interior renovations now, and more later. They are asking the City of Jefferson for a $150,000 grant from the city’s “façade” renovation program, and a five year tax abatement.
Daubendiek, of the GCYAA, said the only work left before the sale is final “is getting the title opinions.”
One possible complication has already been resolved with forthright conversation between the GCYAA and Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation. The latter is the agency which holds the license for Wild Rose Casino & Resort, and which distributes part of the casino’s net proceeds to non-profit groups in the 7-county area. In 2017, the gaming corporation granted the GCYAA $150,000 “that was ear-tagged to enable the GCYAA to buy the Fieldhouse building,” said Norm Fandel, the gaming corporation president.
Another view of the front of the Jefferson Fieldhouse.
Because the GCYAA has had substantial losses in its operation of the building, “members of their board contacted us” to talk about the pending deal with the Sebolts, Fandel said. “Hats off to the GCYAA for initiating that contact. We had a meeting with several members of their organization and several of our board members, and they asked us how we felt about this. They asked if we (the gaming corporation) wanted them to pay back some of the grant, if we felt they haven’t fulfilled what they’d intended to do in the Fieldhouse.”
Fandel said “we had a good discussion, and we pointed out they (GCYAA) are not going to disband. They have started a strong new relationship with the Jefferson Parks & Recreation program at the Greene County Community Center, and they’re going to continue with the vision they initially had — of enhancing all the youth sports programs in the community. And the Sebolt project looks to be just the kind of development project we work for here, and their private ownership of it will put it back on the tax rolls, too. We (on the gaming corporation board) all felt that by no means do we expect the GCYAA to pay back that grant.”
Among those youth sports that will be offered is wrestling for beginners.
In Tuesday evening’s city council meeting, and in his earlier written proposal to GCDC, T.J. Sebolt said his wife Bethany, who is a registered nurse, also has two businesses of her own that will move into the Fieldhouse. One of those is Bethany’s Blanket Bundles, which is “a custom and wholesale apparel printing business,” and the other is “Bundled + co,” which is “an online boutique.” Those businesses have been successful enough that Bethany has been able to stay at home with her daughters in their early years.
T.J. Sebolt said he intends to give up his college coaching and work full-time at his wrestling academy. He said if his proposal is accepted and the Fieldhouse purchase is finalized, “we’ll be moving to Jefferson as soon as we can, allowing that we’ll have to find a house to buy here and sell the one we have,” which is in the small town of Plymouth, outside Mason City.
“Closing on this (Fieldhouse) property without the need to take out a loan will allow us not only to be fully invested,” he wrote in his proposal, “but also will show those committee members who sign those grants and abatements that we are looking to be in the community of Jefferson for the long haul. We are not a family to come in, make a mark and move on.” He said with their relatives the Obers already here, “we have a connection in and to Jefferson and look to be the next family who calls Jefferson home.”
The city council took no formal action on the proposal Tuesday evening, but council members seemed unanimous in their enthusiasm for the project. Darren Jackson said he thinks “this is going to be wonderful, and I’m for things like this that are going to bring young people into town.” Dave Sloan said the proposal “is a plus, plus, plus for Jefferson.”
Mayor Matt Gordon, who said he is a wrestling fan “with three young wrestlers at home,” is especially excited. “This is kind of a dream come true,” Gordon said later. “When I got the call that T.J. Sebolt was interested in this, I knew exactly who he is, and my first reaction was ‘Are you kidding me? T.J. Sebolt wants to bring his academy to Jefferson?’ ”
Gordon, who last year coordinated the wrestling program for the GCYAA, said the Sebolt Wrestling Academy is identified by a “Superman-like” symbol “S” on their T-shirts and singlets. “I know this about the kids in the Sebolt program,” the mayor said. “When you take your own kids to these weekend tournaments, if your opponent is wearing one of those Sebolt ‘S’ shirts, you can figure you’re going to have a very bad day!”
The council indicated it will take action on the incentives for the Sebolts at their next meeting.
My only hesitation in all this was being sure that those responsible for the wrestling program in the Greene County Community Schools are content with the plans.
No problem, said both activities director Todd Gordon and head wrestling coach Zach Beekman.
“Zach and I were invited to the first meeting when the Sebolts looked at the building,” said Todd Gordon, who is not related to Mayor Gordon. “I think this will be a good thing for the school and community.”
Coach Beekman said he is “not at all worried about (the Sebolt program) having any negative impact on our program at school, and I think having them here is a great opportunity for our community. I know how busy T.J. is going to be with his own program, but I hope he’ll have enough time to take an interest in our school program, too. It’ll be neat having someone with his wrestling credentials here. People will talk that this is where his program is, and this is where he lives. That will mean something to wrestlers everywhere.”
There are about 65 athletes in the school programs, from middle school up through high school varsity, including a few girls at all levels. Beekman, who will be starting his third year as head coach, said he hopes to grow the girls program in years to come. And the Sebolts said they’ve had girls enroll in their program at their other locations currently around Iowa.
Dan McCool, of West Des Moines, who for decades has been the leading wrestling writer in the state, said if T.J. Sebolt makes the move to Jefferson, it will indeed be the talk of the wrestling community statewide and beyond. He said that Sebolt seems to be as good as a coach of young wrestlers as he was as a wrestler himself.
When McCool wrote the 2011 book “Reach for the Stars: The Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament,” he devoted a full chapter to Sebolt’s role in prep wrestling history in the state. “What do you do,” McCool wrote, “when you’re ranked No. 1 in your weight class prior to ever wrestling a match?” Sebolt, as a young boy, had such an imposing record that he indeed came into his freshman season at Centerville High as the top-ranked 103-pounder in Iowa. He lost his 16th match that year, to a wrestler in a tournament in Missouri, but he didn’t lose again in high school competition. In 2018, he was inducted into the Iowa High School Wrestling Hall of Fame.
After high school, Sebolt spent a year as a redshirt at Iowa State U. under then-coach Cael Sanderson. He decided he didn’t care for it, left Ames and enrolled at NIACC in Mason City. He’s been part of the coaching staff there for 12 years, most recently as an unpaid volunteer, since he was spending most of his time with his wrestling academy program.
“When you think about the T.J. Sebolt story, he obviously got to where he was at in high school by working his eyelids off,” McCool said. “And from what I see, that’s how they coach in their academy. They work the kids hard. They’ll tell them that if you don’t want to put your all into this, if you don’t really want to put 100 percent into your wrestling development, then this probably isn’t the wrestling camp for you.
“I’m impressed by the way, with his best kids, that he promises them nothing but that they will sweat and they will ache,” McCool continued. “And then he adds, ‘But if you listen, you’ll have the chance to do something great!’ If you listen to him, and buy into his way of doing things, you can have a helluva career.”
Does McCool have a guess what it’ll be like having T.J. Sebolt around Jefferson?
“He’s not going to be the former wrestling star who stands by your Bell Tower and tries to give people his autograph,” the writer said. “He’s going to be the type of guy who goes about his business. He’s in it now to teach the sport of wrestling. It’s been good to him, and he wants to make it good for young wrestlers now and in the future.”
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