As one of Peoria’s premier commercial real estate developers, Mike Landwirth can tell you the history of just about every building in town. Born at the tail end of the Great Depression, he experienced a “wonderful childhood” in the heart of Peoria: reading voraciously, following the exciting transition from radio to television, and indulging his love for cars. A 1958 Peoria High School graduate, he earned a history degree from the University of Michigan before beginning his career in Florida selling industrial chemicals for Southern Oil & Solvents.
In 1964, he returned to Peoria to join his father as a partner in D. W. Klein Co., where he got his first taste of mortgage brokerage and real estate development, matching lenders to borrowers for a percentage of interest on the value of loans. For the next three decades, he accumulated extensive experience in the sale and leasing of commercial and industrial properties, building out north Peoria as the city grew. In 1993, he and Russell Waldschmidt founded Wald/Land Corporation, which remains one of the region’s leading real estate development firms.
A lifelong Peorian, Landwirth has served as chairman and member of the Peoria County Board of Review (1977-1995); trustee, secretary and chairman of the Greater Peoria Sanitary District (1982-1996); secretary and member of the Illinois Capital Development Board (1975-1983); and secretary/treasurer and committee chairman for the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Peoria (2003-2014), where he has been instrumental in overseeing building projects, expanding the tax district and honoring his friend, the late General Wayne A. Downing.
In addition, Landwirth has served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Community Foundation of Central Illinois, Fayette Companies, Human Service Center Foundation, Lakeview Museum and the General Wayne A. Downing Foundation. He was a trustee of Bradley University, board member of the Methodist Health Services Corporation and chairman of the Methodist Medical Center Foundation.
Along with Trudy, his wife of 37 years, Landwirth believes strongly in giving back to the community he loves. Having established a scholarship at Methodist College, created a charitable fund through the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, and donated to a wide range of other causes, the couple has built a joint legacy in community service—one that will endure for the ages.
Let’s start with your childhood—tell me about those early years in Peoria.
I was born December 3, 1939 at St. Francis Hospital. I attended Whittier School and Peoria High. We had a great school system… All my teachers through high school were wonderful. I went off to Culver Military Academy for a year and a half, transferred to Lake Forest Academy, then finally wound up back at Peoria High and graduated in 1958.
It was a wonderful childhood. I grew up at what was 107 Barker, a nice, two-story home… In those days, University ran all the way to Moss. They’ve changed the [street] name—I think it’s Duryea now. We lived three houses off the corner of Barker and University.
I was born before the Second World War. As a young child—I remember very clearly—it was tough. There were no cars built. We had gasoline rationing; we had food rationing. You could only get so much of this and so much of that. We used to do these scrap drives around the neighborhood. I’d take my little wagon around, and if there were any old cans or tires… anything metal, they needed it for the war effort. We even used to save our bacon grease because they needed that.
We were kids of the ‘50s. America was the premier power of the world, and other than the “threat” of atomic annihilation, which was brought home to us constantly… it was a very normal childhood.
What were your hobbies as a kid?
I loved to read. I remember going to the library for the first time—they had a series of American history books—and I devoured them. I was fascinated by how we got to where we are today, where we were at that point.
And I loved to listen to the radio. We used to lay by the radio and listen… You didn’t have a picture, [so] you just had to make your own mental picture of what was going on. Then when television came, we had one of the first TV sets in the neighborhood. My dad was a good friend of Dwight Rohn of Rohn Manufacturing—they made these communication towers. He got Dwight to build a 90-foot tower up the side of our house. By that time, we had moved over to Moss Avenue. So he put up a tower… then we had this thing on top where we could direct the antenna.
In those days, we didn’t have a TV station here, but they had two in the Quad Cities… and we could pick them up if we pointed the antenna in the right direction. In the afternoon, they had the Howdy Doody Show, Pinky Lee and some of the others… The kids from the neighborhood would come, and we would all sit in the living room and watch this horrible, kind of grainy picture—but it was so exciting to see it.
I loved cars, and I still do. I have a vintage Corvette, a ’66 427 Corvette. I used to drive this red and white Oldsmobile convertible, and we used to cruise Hunt’s [Family Restaurant] down on Farmington Road. I remember once I ran over Gordon Hunt’s foot. He didn’t like the kids driving through, [and] he spotted us one night, stood in front of my car and yelled, “Stop!” I just took off, and I guess I clipped his foot. He called my father, and of course, I got in all kinds of trouble.
We used to go downtown, and we’d cruise up and down Jefferson and Adams. In those days, we never worried about where we were or what kind of trouble we would get into. Sometimes, we would drag-race a little. I used to love to go out and watch the stock car races. Out off Pioneer Parkway was the old Mt. Hawley Speedway—I was a regular fixture out there. Then after high school, I was accepted into the University of Michigan.
How did you get started in real estate?
My father, for most of his life, was in the retail business—Klein’s department stores. They were at 222 SW Adams… next to the building where Mid-Illinois Bank is now—the old Montgomery Ward building. There was Lowenstein’s Furniture; Bergner’s was on that block; across the street, Schradsky’s, B&M [Clothing], W.T. Grant…
My mother was a Klein, so he married the boss’ daughter. Harry Klein died in 1949—he was only 65, but he had heart trouble… [Klein’s] went out of business in 1962, I think, so he closed up the stores. I was working in Florida—after I got done with school—for a company called Southern Oil and Solvents.
So when my dad got out of retail, he said, “Why don’t you come home and we’ll do real estate—mortgage brokerage and real estate development?” I came back from Florida in ’64, and we had a little office on the fourth floor of the Lehman Building. He had always been interested in buying real estate, buying buildings. He bought the old Rocket Garage, which is now the Museum Block… and he had Illinois Bearing… He bought a building where Illinois Mutual is now… He owned the Larkin Building on Washington Street.
I was just a boy, but I thought that looked like a fun business to be in. My degree was in history. I have never taken a business course in my life, which only goes to show that a good liberal arts education is good for you. The best way to learn your profession is to follow somebody who knows what they’re doing and listen. So that’s what I did.
We started out doing mortgage brokerage. We would go around to various small communities and try to arrange loans for those who couldn’t necessarily get financing at the local bank… We had sources: insurance companies, finance companies, most of them in Chicago, a few in Peoria [where] they had branch offices. We did a lot of asset-based lending… people who needed accounts receivable financing, inventory loans and things like that. I got a very good education learning that business.
That time period, in ‘64-‘65, the economy wasn’t very good. The banks had so much money lying around, because nobody was borrowing… We would go around looking for clients for them.
So you were kind of a middle man?
Yes—we would be paid one or two percent on the value of the loan. And in asset-based lending, they would give us a percentage of the interest they’d collect every month. That’s how we started.
Then in 1965… I had never seen these multi-tenant industrial buildings around here, where instead of building a specific building for one tenant, you would build a multi-tenant building, what we now call “flex space.” I had an architect design a concept building, and we had started developing out in what was then the old Mt. Hawley Airport. We extended Detweiller Drive; there was no Hale Avenue at that time… I built my first building, about 18,900 square feet, on Detweiller. I just sold it in January. I was so proud of that building. I went out and borrowed $125,000 to build the shell, and it was very hard to get a loan because I didn’t have any history. But people knew my father, so I guess that helped. I finally got Peoria Savings to loan me the money.
Do you remember who your first tenants were?
Yes, it was Dow Chemical. It was a little end cap—2,700 square feet—called Pitman-Moore; it was their agricultural veterinarian business. Next to them, after that came Celanese Corporation and the Devoe Paint Company. Next to them was Overhead Door… then Commercial Glass, which is still there… and that was the building. Two years later, I added an addition of 12,500 feet and put in Allied Handling Equipment, Kurfees Paint Company, and RCA Services. So that was the first project—started in ‘65, completed in ‘68.
What other projects over the years stand out to you?
I’ll tell you the most outstanding thing in the ‘70s that we did, and probably the biggest commission I ever collected. All this property—80-some acres—across University Street to the corner [at Pioneer Parkway] and all the way to the railroad tracks, this was all cornfields. It belonged to Frank and Helen Gallagher [of] Foster-Gallagher. My father and I were in the brokerage business, and Frank came to us about this property.
I knew Arber Johnson—he was one of the Pioneer Industrial Park guys. They used to be Swain, Johnson & Gard [law firm]—great attorneys and great friends. They bought the whole tract for $850,000, and I collected a $72,000 commission.
Later on, Dave Joseph and I built Candletree [Drive]. And we, unfortunately, are responsible for those apartments back there. (chuckles) We sold it to a developer out of Topeka, Kansas… We put in the street, then we sold that piece off. Dave had just come back to Peoria, and that was one of the first deals we did.
I eventually moved to the old Jefferson Building, where WMBD used to be. I was on the eighth floor. [Ray] Becker bought the building, and he was on 12, and my partner Russ Waldschmidt worked for him. Ray didn’t want to share interest in some of these projects. He told Russ, if you want to go out on the side and develop your own stuff, feel free. So he did a lot of stuff on his own, and we started doing things together… He and I and Greg Stone—who was also in the building—formed a little partnership called RGM: Russ, Greg and Mark.
The first building we bought was a 12,000-square-foot office building, and we put Randolph and Associates there, the engineering company. After that… Bergner’s was getting ready to move their warehousing operation to Rockford—this was 1988. We thought that would be a wonderful building to own. In the meantime, we had worked with a company in Wyoming, Illinois called Trans Technology Electronics, which made wire harnesses for the military. We talked them into moving to Peoria and occupying a big portion of this building—that was our first big venture.
In the ‘70s, Dave Maloof and I formed a partnership and developed a building for American Hospital Supply. Later, his brother Dan came to the business and we formed DDM, LLC. At one time, we owned 10 properties; today, we still have five or six. Both Maloof brothers are good friends and wonderful partners.
It just went on from there. We developed these little shopping centers along University, and one over on Glen. We traded for property in East Peoria. I also bought the old Couch & Heyl building with some other investors… Later on, I sold that to Dale Burklund. That’s where Burklund Distributors is now.
Back in the ‘80s—I have to give Greg Stone credit for this one—Greg says there’s a piece of land on Willow Knolls Road [near] where the Knights of Columbus used to be… 30 acres. He said it’s in foreclosure in a bank in Princeton, Illinois; you have to come out and look at it. I said there must be something wrong with it because they’re only asking $150,000.
We drove into the Knights of Columbus parking lot… I was on crutches and had my suit on. [The land] was planted with corn, and I walked in those furrows with crutches; I wanted to see, where’s the bad part in this? And there wasn’t. So I told Greg, get up to Princeton and offer them full price. We’ll buy this, and we did. Linda [Kepple] had actually presented it to Greg… so we gave her 25 percent of the interest. It turned out to be a great property. We developed that whole 30 acres. We built both Villa Lake Drive and Willowlake Court.
Then we bought the 50 acres behind it from the [Catholic] Cemetery Association… Shortly after we bought it, the Diocese approached us and said, “We are thinking about moving the Notre Dame campus out here… We would like to buy 30 of your 50 acres.” So we made a deal where we sold them 12 acres… and donated the rest—that allowed us to pay off the debt we had. We ended up with this 20-acre tract along the edge of the golf course. I thought at some point we’d build condos or something overlooking the golf course. Well, we finally sold that piece to Tim Shea, and he did. We also sold the piece in front of it, and Kenny Oakley built those apartments in front. Then we put in Villa Lake Drive.
So, that $150,000 investment turned into about a $2.5 million sale, but it didn’t happen overnight. We had to build the streets, and there were some sewers. These things sound wonderful, but believe me, it took a lot of work. Nothing in this business is easy.
Tell us about the Walmart deal in north Peoria.
I had been trying for years to buy what they used to call the Bell property, 78 acres [near Route 6]… Russ was Walmart’s broker; he had been trying to put a Walmart down on Mort Goldfine’s property next to the American Mausoleum. They wanted to put their store right where Pioneer Parkway ended, across the street. Goldfine was being difficult… so Russ said, “Why don’t you come look at this property we have up here?” So [Walmart] came up and looked at the Bell site.
We worked with them for almost two and a half years, and finally got them to buy 34 of those 78 acres. Then we extended Townline [Road]. [The late] Tommy Horan, he had a farm adjoining that, which backed up to Route 6. He had 242 acres, and we knew Menards was interested in being up there. We didn’t have anything in writing, but we took a gamble and bought the Horan farm, a multi-million dollar purchase. I remember saying, “Oh my God, what are we getting ourselves into?” But we made our deal with Menards. The rest is history, and you can see how well this area has developed.
Were you involved with the North Branch library?
Yes, we actually sold that to them. We gave them a little bit of a concession; we were just thrilled to have them… It’s a beautiful building. Farnsworth did a great job on that.
What’s been the biggest change in the industry over the years?
When I was young, all the banks and most of the commercial businesses in this town were locally owned. Today… outside of a handful, they’re all owned by national companies. It’s completely different.
The technology is the most impressive thing. When I started, we had the first thermal paper copying machine. Every time you took the paper out, it would curl up because it got so hot. When I wanted to have a lease done, my secretary would use a typewriter and four pieces of carbon paper… and she would physically type everything out. If there was a mistake, she would have to go back and erase it. Today, if I want a lease, we have it in the computer—you just fill in the blanks and email it.
I don’t use a computer. Everybody says I’m back in the Stone Age, and that’s probably true, but I find that you can waste an awful lot of time… because you’re always looking at things that have absolutely nothing to do with what you’re here for. I like to focus on what I’m doing. I do everything on legal pads, and with a little calculator. I get emails and I send emails, but they go [out] there [to my secretary]. She gets them and gives them to me. It’s just the way I like to do things.
Today, decisions have to be made almost instantaneously. When I used to get a document in the mail, I could sit here for a day or two—or three or four—and think about it. Today, they want answers like this! (snaps fingers) Sometimes when you do that, you make mistakes, and I don’t like to make mistakes.
You have served on the Metropolitan Airport Authority of Peoria board for many years. Were you involved in naming the airport after General Wayne A. Downing?
Yes—he was a good friend of a lot of my very good friends, and ultimately became a good friend of mine. Wayne worked up through the ranks of the military and became a four-star general, and basically ran special ops—everything from the Delta Force to the Rangers. He was a brilliant person. I never knew anybody who had such a grasp of what we are now facing [in the Middle East]. He saw it coming very clearly… Right after 9/11, President Bush appointed him head of the terrorism taskforce. He was advising Colin Powell and he had the president’s ear.
Wayne passed away prematurely, in 2007. A number of us flew out to West Point for his funeral. On a Tuesday afternoon, over a thousand people showed up, including a lot of generals and former cabinet members. The Rangers were everywhere—they loved him. Even when we had the service here at St. Thomas, the Rangers group came.
There was a group of Peorians who thought it would be a good idea to [honor him]… So it was brought to the board’s attention and the board voted unanimously. Then we got a call from [billionaire] Ross Perot, who was also a close friend of Wayne’s. He said, “I’d like to have a statue for Wayne—I’ll pay for it and have it done right.” So this sculptor from Oklahoma did a 16-foot high bronze and the base, with all of his awards. I was out there the day they were setting it up. I think that base weighs 20 tons, and the statue—it took them all day to put the thing up. The Downing Foundation paid for the gardens and benches.
Then the Downing Foundation went out of business… We still had about $150,000 left, and Goodwill wanted to expand the Downing Home [for Veterans], so we gave that money to them.
How active are you in business now? Do you have plans to retire?
Russ [Waldschmidt] and I were talking about this the other day. I don’t want to retire fully. We still have investments, we manage a lot of real estate, and we have tenants to keep happy. As far as getting involved in a big project, I’m not doing that.
Trudy and I bought a home in Naples, Florida last July… and we’ve been spending a lot of time fixing it up. I am so much more relaxed when I’m in Florida, because I don’t have the schedule I have here. I can get up when I want to get up. I have a nice office, and I can work in my robe and pajamas if I want. I have a swimming pool outside my back door so I can go out and get in the pool.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve lived here all my life, and Peoria has been very good to me… It’s good to share, if you’ve been blessed, and give back to the community. I’ve tried to do that, both with time and financial support. Now, there’s another generation, and it’s their turn… This community has so many wonderful cultural things, and if we don’t support them, they’re going to disappear. That would be a shame. When I travel and tell people about Peoria… they’re amazed that a town our size has all this to offer. We are very fortunate to have such wonderful assets, and I hope we maintain them. iBi