Kert Huber is CEO of Huber Brothers Corp., a commercial general contracting and property management company started in 1977, and owner of Kert Huber Development, a real estate investment company started in 1989. He's received several awards in the areas of property beautification and historic preservation.
Huber's community involvement includes membership on the following boards: Peoria Construction Commission, Heart of Peoria Plan Commission, Smart Code Committee, Heart of Peoria Design Committee, and vice president of the Peoria RiverFront Association.
He and his wife, Doreen, have two adult children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I was raised with my two brothers and younger sister on a farm near Galva. My parents had a tremendous sense of pride in our home and farms. The grass was always mowed and trimmed, and the white board fences always had a fresh coat of paint on them. We were taught how to work, how to take care of what we had, and to take pride in whatever we did-a truly blessed way to begin your life.
I'm married to Doreen, my high school sweetheart, and we have two grown children, Kevin and Erikka, both living in Peoria.
Tell about the formation of Huber Brothers Corp. and what services it offers.
My older brother, Keith, and I formed Huber Brothers Corp. in 1977. After a few months, Keith decided to return to manufacturing, and I continued with Huber Brothers. By 1984, Huber Brothers Corp. had developed into a general contracting company specializing in constructing and renovating retail stores for national retailers such as Maurice, Saks, and Paul Harris, to name a few. In the early 1990s, we shifted concentration to local and regional design build projects.
Huber Brothers currently has two primary divisions: commercial design and construction and commercial property management.
Who or what influenced you to enter construction and development?
I've always enjoyed turning ideas into something tangible. In 1972, my brother and I closed a golf cart manufacturing plant in Springfield. When a former client learned we were closing, he called and offered me a position at a new home center they were building in Peoria. I ultimately ended up managing their contractor building materials division. This is where I developed my interest in the construction industry.
While you've completed projects in 24 states, you decided to concentrate on projects in the Peoria area. Why is that?
Managing long-distance projects can be very challenging, but during the 1980s, it could also be rewarding. By the late 1980s, the mall industry had matured, and the market had become very competitive. We decided to change our emphasis to local and regional design build. Contacts with Northwoods Mall and the Sheridan Village expansion and renovation helped with the transition to the Peoria market.
Tell about the projects Huber Brothers has developed in central Illinois.
Although we've completed hundreds of projects over the past 25 years, those threatened by demolition were the most interesting. My first downtown project was the Judge Jacob Gale House, circa 1838, which I bought with Tom Leiter. The property was under demolition order, and we worked with a local preservation group to save it. After 10 years as the home to the Peoria Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Gale House is now the law office of Prusak, Winne and Gorman, Ltd.
A few years later, the old Musician's Hall on Kumpf Boulevard was in jeopardy of being demolished. Again, Tom and I teamed up to save the circa-1856 structure. It's now First Capital Bank.
Three years ago, the opera house in Canton was scheduled for demolition. I couldn't resist its charm. It's now the Opera House Professional Center and houses a dental clinic, a doctor's office, the chamber of commerce, the United Way, Spoon River College, an attorney's office, a state representative's office, a cabinet company, and DCFS.
Some other older or historic properties I've been involved with-either in the reconstruction or the development-are Belcan, CGN, and the Ironfront Building-all on Washington Street-Benassi and Benassi Law Offices, and the Apollo Theater, to name a few.
Many of your projects are historical buildings. What are some of the challenges associated with renovating historical buildings?
To save older or historic buildings usually requires a change of use to make them economically viable. Examples include: The Gale House from residence to office, the Music Hall from assembly area to bank, and the opera house from theater to office/professional. Making any older building meet today's codes is difficult and expensive. Making them meet those codes when faced with a change of use is sometimes more daunting than many want to tackle. In almost every case, the older structures meet the structural strength and loading needs of today's codes; the problems arise when faced with the ever expanding life safety/fire codes and the Illinois Accessibility Codes. The Illinois Accessibility Code is Illinois' answer to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The IAC is more rigid and costly than the ADA.
Life safety/fire codes have become very aggressive over the past few years. The purpose of each of these codes is difficult to argue. All citizens are entitled to equal rights, which include their right to equal access. Fire codes are to protect life, property, and also the firemen who risk their lives to save life and property. The challenge is to satisfy codes and maintain economic viability without destroying the charm of the building. We must find a balance between safety, access for all, and our architectural heritage.
There's a movement across this country to revitalize our aging downtowns. This movement has spawned many new ideas for "code enhancement" to accomplish this balance. I'm currently involved in the study of two such code enhancements that give reason for guarded optimism for a better balance between preservation and code compliance.
Huber Brothers recently purchased the Commerce Bank Building. What are the plans to renovate that building? Will most of the current tenants stay in the building?
Dave Golwitzer and I purchased the Commerce Building last spring. Dave is president of Illico Inc., a developer in his own right, and my business partner on several development projects including 401 Water, Candletree Center, River Station, Morton Professional Park, the Department of Corrections Work Release Center, and several others.
We've been interested in the Commerce Building for several years, but it only became available recently. We purchased the building from Commerce Bank, and it was a pleasure to do business with people with such fairness and integrity. Commerce Bank has a long-term lease with us, so their concerns-like ours-were to see that the building was quickly restored to its former glory. We started restoration in February, and we'll be substantially complete in 2005.
We're installing a new electrical system, new plumbing lines, and new restrooms. The building is also being enhanced with an electronic entry system, state-of-the-art fire alarm system, expanded fire suppression system, smoke control in the stair ways, more fire exits from the lower level, and new heating and air-conditioning. We're also restoring the marble lobby, the marble halls, installing new elevator controls and cabs, and opening a new restaurant in the lower level. These changes, combined with local ownership and management and no increase to current tenants' rent, give us hope to retain the majority of the existing tenants.
The City of Peoria has been referred to as difficult to do business with, in terms of the various city codes, etc. Have you found that to be true?
The codes and ordinances in Peoria are no more restrictive or difficult than in most any other cities our size. Peoria converted two years ago from the BOCA Code to the International Building Code. These codes govern structure, safety, and energy efficiency. The zoning code governs quiet enjoyment of property and is a use-based code. It seems to be fair and includes provisions for adjustment by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
I don't believe the codes have as much impact on the ease of doing business as how the codes are interpreted. The intent of most building codes, as they apply to existing buildings, is to provide a safer and more accessible environment. If policy were to encourage and facilitate a project through applying codes by that intent, then we may be looked upon as a more hospitable city.
You've received many awards for building preservation, etc. Most developers prefer new construction. What attracts you to restoration?
I find I need boundaries. The most difficult project for me is to design a new building; there are no restrictions to work around, and the possibilities are endless.
I enjoy the character and strength of older buildings. I also believe I receive better value with an older structure than with new construction. I have many buildings that are 75 to 100 years old. Take a look at most buildings that were built in the 1970s or 1980s, for example. Do you think they'll be standing tall in 2045 or 2080?
What project are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of 401 Water. Naturally, I'm pleased with the design and quality construction, but my real pride comes from the lifestyle community at 401. People love living and working there. When I see the loft owners visiting over breakfast at Cafe 401 or the office tenants having mini meetings over lattes in the commons, I get a great feeling of accomplishment. People are happy with what we've created, and there's no better reward.
How do you decide which projects to take on and which to decline?
Design and location have a strong bearing on which projects we choose. Having or visualizing a use for the finished project is, of course, the most important element. The project must be economically feasible. It's really a rather simple formula: economy is created by use. Virtually any structure with a reasonably sound foundation can be saved if the use can support the cost.
Recently, a consultant suggested real estate agents steer buyers out of the older neighborhoods and downtown area. Have you found that to be true? How do you attract buyers to the downtown renovations?
The idea that a realtor would try to steer a buyer out of older neighborhoods is, in my opinion, groundless. Most of our loft sales have come from referrals, either by existing loft owners or local realtors. Many people enjoy living in older, established neighborhoods.
I think people want to feel safe, and they want a good school for their children. The perception of some older neighborhoods is sometimes negative in both of these areas. This perception needs to be changed. I have very little problem attracting buyers to our downtown 401 Water lofts. If you check the police reports, you'll find downtown Peoria is a very safe place. We tend to attract empty nesters, so I've had very little experience or reason to judge our schools.
401 SW Water, which is a multi-use building, has been successful. What do some of the tenants and businesses appreciate about their location and building?
401 Water is a community in itself; the office tenants mixed with the residential loft owners to form a neighborhood. The first floor shops provide several services, from breakfast to gourmet coffee to dry cleaning to a common meeting area to shopping. A short walk takes you to Cat headquarters or any number of other businesses for work. There's the Riverplex, the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings, restaurants, nightlife, and concerts-not to mention great river views. I recall a visitor with IBM from New York City saying to his associate while touring 401 Water, "I can't believe we're in Peoria, Illinois."
What would be on your wish list for further development downtown?
The museum will crown our downtown and return innumerable benefits to our community. I'd like to see more emphasis placed on daytime activities and retail downtown. The Heart of Peoria Plan has the potential to assist in this area. The Med-Tech district holds fantastic potential. Most importantly, in my opinion, would be more people living downtown. Quality residences will guarantee the success of the downtown area.
What are some of your company's future plans?
We're looking at more alternative residential living downtown and owner-occupied office space. One personal project is an incubator for retail and retail services on the riverfront. We're crafting a program to assist small, unique shops that would want to start or move to the riverfront area. Business plan assistance, accounting, finance, and marketing assistance, along with discounted or free space, will make up the services offered in the program.
What else would you like our readers to know?
Many people question the emphasis placed on the revitalization of the downtown. It's sometimes difficult to see the importance of a healthy and vibrant downtown for those citizens living in the older bluff neighborhoods or for residents in the far north and west growth cells with planned communities. If you were to be offered a position in Chicago, would you weigh the pros and cons based only upon the neighborhood where you planned to live? Wouldn't you also think about all the cultural and sporting events and the great lifestyle available in Chicago's downtown? It's the same with any successful city, whether it's Peoria, New York, London, or Paris.
To grow, we must be able to attract industry, and industry must be able to attract talent. Talent is attracted to vibrant areas offering culture, entertainment, dining, and shopping. Most cities have Walmart, shopping malls, franchise restaurants, and planned communities. Great cities have vibrant and diverse downtowns. Peoria has the opportunity and the ability to be a great city. IBI