A Publication of WTVP

Saving old buildings is ‘in his blood’

by Lisa Coon | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Kert Huber

From 401 Water to 416 Main, developer Kert Huber has left a mark on Downtown as few others have

If there has been a king of Downtown development over the last few decades, the crown may go to Kert Huber, not that he’s keen on wearing it.

The 74-year-old Dunlap resident has spent the last 40 years building, buying and renovating commercial properties, with a particular interest in those that seemed well past their prime.

Alas, he avoids the limelight, quick to credit others.

“Ray Becker did a lot to bring back the Downtown, then we built on what Ray did,” Huber said of the late developer responsible for Peoria’s Twin Towers, among other structures.

And he says it was Tom Tincher, Peoria’s former director of development, who helped pique his interest in rehabbing some of Downtown’s most iconic structures, in particular the riverfront building known today as 401 Water.

A pioneer

Huber’s dedication to Downtown Peoria is evident in the projects he’s undertaken, whether it was the $11 million transformation of the former Foster-Gallagher warehouse into the office, retail and residential space of 401 Water; the restoration of the Judge Jacob Gale House, the oldest single-family dwelling remaining in the original town of Peoria; or the $5.5 million renovation of 416 Main, the architecturally stunning former Peoria Life Insurance/First National Bank/Commerce Bank building that still dominates Peoria’s Downtown skyline.

“Kert was one of the early pioneers … of the concept that people would want to live downtown in a cool environment, work in a cool environment,” said Chris Setti, CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

“Twenty-two years ago, 401 Water was one of the first major renovations of a building of that style in Peoria. His work there helped to cast a vision on what we see today on the other side of the Bob Michel Bridge in the Murray Building.”

The early years

Growing up on a farm near Galva with two brothers and a sister, Huber learned the importance of hard work, caring for what you have and pride in the work you do.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Huber and his late brother, Keith, had a manufacturing business in Springfield making the Flagmaster golf cart. They got out of that business in 1972 as imports saturated the market.

Huber came to Peoria with Dawson’s Home Center, where he would eventually manage the contractor building materials division. The brothers then formed Huber Brothers Corp., a retail/resale lumber business. Ultimately, Keith returned to manufacturing, while Kert transitioned the company in 1984 to general contracting. He specialized in constructing and renovating retail stores for national chains such as Maurice’s, Paul Harris and Walgreens. In the early 1990s, the business turned its attention to design-build projects.

Today, Huber Commercial manages more than 1 million square feet of leasable space.

‘The reason I’m still at it’

Huber has completed hundreds of building projects during his career, but it’s the old, often condemned structures that most appeal to him.

“I just love it. There’s something about going into an older building and bringing it back to life,” he said. “It’s the reason I’m still at it as an old man.”

Huber’s daughter, Erikka Claerhout, oversees property management, leasing and tenant retention at the company, while her husband, Todd, handles the construction. She said her father “just has a passion and vision for restoring things and giving them new life and purpose. He always has. It’s in his DNA.”

When asked to describe Huber, Roberta Parks, the first condo resident at his 401 Water, didn’t hesitate.

“Kert is about renovating old buildings … trying to make sure they continue to exist and thrive,” she said. “401 Water is the one closest to his heart. And that’s obvious. He’s in the building a lot.”

Huber agrees that 401 Water, which was just a shell when he first walked into it, is his favorite project. “We have tenants that joined us at the beginning who are still with us 22 years later,” he said.

An advocate for Peoria

Huber takes issue with those who say the city’s Downtown needs “saved.”

“I’ve seen the cycles. I look around and see that Downtown has come so far,” he said, explaining that there’s a certain ebb and flow that downtowns everywhere experience.

“If people would just think back to the condition of buildings 25 years ago, what the RiverFront was like 25 years ago or the Warehouse District 25 years ago … we’ve come a long way and there’s still a lot happening. There’s a great synergy and a feeling of neighborhood.”

To that end, he served on the city’s Construction Commission, the Heart of Peoria Plan Commission and Design Committee, and the Smart Code Commission. He also is president of the Peoria RiverFront Association.

“I am very proud of what the Peoria RiverFront Association has accomplished with its 60-plus members — sponsoring RiverFront banners, the American flags corridor on Water Street, the RiverFront Market, the Winter Market and the advocacy for all things in the RiverFront, Warehouse, Main Street and Downtown districts,” he said. “We have grown it into a major player in making Peoria a great place to live, work and enjoy life.”

A lingering regret

In the late 1990s, Huber purchased the former Armory property on Adams Street across from Taft Homes. The Illinois Department of Corrections was going to house a work release program for non-violent offenders at the site.

“It needed a ‘special use’ zoning approval,” he recalled. “Some residents of Taft Homes came out against the project and it was voted down by the City Council.”

Huber donated the property to a church, but it proved too much for them and “fell into total disrepair.” Today, it sits with no roof, its prospects bleak.

“We ended up locating the state’s work release facility at Main and Monroe and sold that property last year after over 20 years as a successful development,” Huber said. “I regret that we didn’t convince the Council that this was the best use for the Armory. I regret that this building now faces possible demolition. I would resurrect the plans today if I could find a use with economic potential to save this great old building.”

Not ready for retirement

Retirement may not be on the tip of his tongue, but Huber acknowledges that he’s slowed down some. He and his wife of 38 years, Doreen, his high school sweetheart, enjoy traveling and have places in Longboat Key, Florida, and Osage Beach, Missouri.

“We love to travel, play golf, play cards and enjoy a little wine with friends,” he said, “but life needs more challenges and I think we all like to stay at least a bit relevant.

“I realize I am past the ‘best if used by’ date. Most of my friends which have been by my side providing the labor, plumbing, carpentry, electrical, glazing, elevators, roofs, etc., are long retired and their companies are run by their sons and daughters or are gone completely,” Huber said. “But I still enjoy the business immensely.”

At his age, his priorities have shifted from things to people. “Like most people, I want to be remembered as a positive influence,” he said. “My daughter has worked in the company for 21 years and my son-in-law for 11 years, so if I should decide to step back, I know I am leaving the management of the properties in capable hands — as long as I retire before they do.”

Claerhout doesn’t see that happening.

“It’s in his blood and he’d be bored without it.”

Lisa Coon

is a Peoria native who had a long career in the newspaper industry before moving into marketing and communications