116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar River raged through Cedar Rapids last month, causing water to pool in the basement of the old Smulekoff's Building, which is nearing the end of a $15 million restoration.
Steve Emerson, who bought the building earlier this year, stayed overnight on the Sunday and Monday before the river crest. Wearing rubber boots, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with construction workers managing thick hoses pumping out 1,400 gallons of water per minute. The next few days, after the crest, Emerson headed downtown in his white Ford F-150 with a trailer to haul away sandbags from buildings — his own and others.
'Steve was the one who said, 'We are going to get downtown back sooner than later,'' said Marty Hoeger, a friend and business associate who was on hand during this period. 'He was the ring leader. It is pretty significant when you have someone in the community willing to put their money where their mouth is in terms of investment, but also who's willing to roll up their sleaves to do what needs to be done.'
Friends and associates describe Emerson as an intense, self-made local businessman, who without a legacy name has quietly and quickly emerged as one of Cedar Rapids's most prominent investors. He's compiled what observers estimate is one of, if not the largest portfolios of properties in downtown Cedar Rapids.
'Ten years ago nobody knew who this guy was,' said Doug Neumann, interim president of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. 'He was viewed as an upstart, maybe with some skepticism. But project after project has been successful and he's taken on projects others didn't want. Projects others said 'you can't do that. It doesn't pencil out. It just doesn't work.' But, Steve would say, 'I think I can make it work.''
Emerson was among the first to gamble on the push to expanding urban housing in Cedar Rapids.
Emerson, who owns The Gazette's building, has taken one old building after the next, some largely vacant, restored them and put them back to use. An architect by trade, he enjoys a challenge, and his primary focus is property management.
'It went from an interest to a passion to an obsession,' said Emerson, 46, president of Aspect Inc., which he started in 2005 and includes property management, construction and architecture services. 'Every empty building I think, 'What can I do here?''
To look at Emerson, you might mistake him for a construction worker on one of his crews.
CHOOSING CEDAR RAPIDS
Standing about 5-feet-10 inches tall, Emerson wears short cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a shaved face. He's built like a wrestler or a running back — in fact, he wrestled at Linn-Mar High School, as well as playing soccer and running cross-country. He often wears jeans and a polo, a middle ground outfit suited for a construction site, a City Council presentation or The Early Bird Cafe, which has served as an informal office for meetings with associates or potential deal partners.
His day starts around 6 a.m., often with dropping his 1-year-old at day care. He also has a daughter in elementary school. Emerson finishes work between 10 p.m. and midnight at home, capping the day with a cold Busch Light on his 160-acre property with prairie and woods near Center Point.
Emerson grew up in Marion as the youngest of three kids. His mom stayed home, while his dad worked for Rockwell Collins. Enjoying drafting in middle school shop class, he passed over becoming a veterinarian as he earned an architecture degree from Iowa State University in 1993.
He traveled, had an internship in Paris and thought about moving to New York to get a master's degree. Instead, he stayed close to home, earning a Master's in business administration from University of Iowa's Cedar Rapids location in 1997, which was the same year he got an architecture license.
'I realized I love Iowa. and I love Cedar Rapids,' he said.
BUILDING ON AMBITION
Emerson got his start at the now defunct Brown Healey Stone and Sauer in downtown Cedar Rapids, first as an intern while in college, and later hired full time. He became partner, and stayed with the firm through its 2001 merger into Howard R. Green Co. until starting Aspect in 2005.
Even back in the 1990s, colleagues recall Emerson as ambitious and intense.
'The only word I could tell you about Steve is he was ambitious,' said former firm partner Bruce Hamous, now a senior architect at Shive-Hattery. 'The rest I don't have a good recollection, but it was pretty self-evident he was ambitious. He was always wanting to try new things. That's why him going into real estate didn't surprise me.'
In 1999, Emerson — still in his 20s — did something that surprised some in the office. The partners were getting older, and wanted to sell the building at 800 First Avenue E. Emerson made an offer.
'We looked at him stunned,' said Herb Stone, 80, who was president and senior partner at the time. 'It was in the $500,000 range, but he said I know how to get the loans from the banks.'
Stone said partners were happy with the situation because Emerson planned to preserve their second-floor office space.
'Steve had always talked about wanting to do more than be just an architect and being involved in larger scale projects where he'd be in charge of not just design, but development and all financial aspects,' Stone said. 'He always reminded me of one of my kids — very aggressive, very active, always wanted to be involved in a lot of stuff. He never tried to mask it.'
Emerson bought half the building on contract and the other half from bank loans, and then proceeded to renovate it. It was the first building he bought.
'We gutted the building,' Emerson said. 'Every minute outside of work we were working on it.'
As he got more tenants, his cash flow improved. With a casual attitude, Emerson began expanding his real estate portfolio.
'I had an extremely flippant attitude at that time,' he said. 'It was just zeros. The money was not a big deal ... I jumped at anything, and negotiated super hard. The worst case, I was back to where I started. I had a job and a 401K. I thought, 'This is a hobby.' The ability to walk away gave me a huge advantage.'
He'd leverage what he bought to the next building and next. Where possible, Emerson has gone after city, state and federal tax breaks, depending on the nature of the project.
NO LONGER UNDER THE RADAR
While Emerson has projects outside of downtown and some out of state, such as in Arkansas and North Carolina, his focus and passion has been in downtown Cedar Rapids, where most efforts have involved taking existing space, improving it and getting it back to use.
'The Paramount Building was one of the worst buildings in downtown but was once a gem,' Emerson said. 'The idea was to gut it and turn it back into a gem. That adds value for all of downtown.'
His acquisitions grew: the Clifton Larson Allen building, the old Iowa Department of Transportation district headquarters, Paramount Office building, the Principal Building, the old SCI building, and renovating The History Center into a day care, among others, over the years.
Some he'd keep. Others he'd sell.
'A little over 10 years ago I started hearing his name,' said Steve Dummermuth, Jr., a property developer. 'Plenty of us wondered, 'Who is this new guy? How is he getting financing? How is he getting these deals done? He was doing things none of the rest of us were.'
Dummermuth worked with Emerson when he sold him the 323 Building on Third Street SE in 2015 for $2 million.
'He just has an insatiable appetite,' Dummermuth said. 'He likes to buy buildings and repurpose them and invest a lot of money. He had to teach himself layer upon layer up on layer of the business, with the Smulekoff's Building and the layers of federal and state regulations.'
Dummermuth described Emerson as someone who avoids the limelight. Emerson seems to take his high stakes endeavors in stride.
When asked about how much property he owns, Emerson replied, 'I don't know. I think I have about 30 LCs, and each LC has one or two properties.'
In the background, though, Emerson is extremely busy and focused.
He has eight active construction projects, twice as many in design, and virtually at all times another 10 prospects on the horizon. He is always looking two years out at the market, he said. Just last month, he helped announce a bid to bring a casino to Cedar Rapids.
Emerson said he doesn't have a master plan for all his property, but he also doesn't plan to slow down. He enjoys helping reshape downtown Cedar Rapids, blending history with modern, and adding to the 'strong fabric' of the city, even if he will keep some of his plans a mystery.
'Almost everything you do in the development world is competitive,' Emerson said. 'Most of my projects, I've tried to be the small fish in the big pond. I try to be under the radar. I don't want everyone to know what I'm doing.'