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Memories of a real estate developer

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Written by Doug Hunt, SVP-Development (South Bend, IN)

One of our greatest Founding Fathers said, “government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature.”  Kind of depressing to think that sometimes these days. But that’s not my point. Instead I think that real estate development, especially when it gets you out — literally — in the field, is a great reflection on human nature. Here are some memories that deserve to be in the catalog of human nature and”¦ well”¦ in the scrapbook of our business.

  • Roland S****, the crazy surveyor. Tim Healy and I spent most of one afternoon bouncing over farm fields, meadows and rutted roads, listening to Roland, who could yell and cuss and provide useful information in the same mouthful. His big old sedan, with maps on the dash, pick axes in the back ”¦ all bouncing along with us as we learned useful and useless information alike about site conditions, town politics and how a man who is truly committed can make more noise than a muscle car roaring over ruts.
  • Summertime sweat in a construction trailer. We’ve all been there. In early days, before decent HVAC. Windows open to the chalky dust, floor gritty and crooked, the Port-A-Pot upwind and well-“stocked.”  But for all that ”¦ the sound outside the trailer of equipment working a site”¦  and the relief of a late day summer rain, moving through to sweeten the air and beat the dust down, was just about as good as it could get.
  • Tim Healy’s Excellent Lunch. The City of Gary gave us many memorable moments as we built the Broad Ridge office buildings. One of my favorites — because it didn’t involve me — was Tim Healy’s Excellent Lunch. We were working with the Director of Redevelopment and one noon hour she offered to bring lunch in while Tim was meeting in her office.  Wasn’t long before “Lunch Special No. 5” came in, innocent enough in the usual Styrofoam box.  Looked kind of like McNuggets. But you don’t really expect it to be catfish nuggets with”¦ mmmm”¦ a fishbone center. Tim chewed and chewed, etc, then reached for some sauce to pull him through. You remember what Kryptonite does to Superman”¦ that’s what hot sauce does to Tim”¦ steam coming out of all openings and creating a few new ones.  If it weren’t for the big bottle of Sprite, napkins and the entertainment value to his lunchmates, we might never have heard from him again.
  • Let’s Play “Dodge the Codger.”  It was late winter just after a fresh snow and roads were mushy and slick. I was riding toward Elkhart on East Jefferson Blvd with a Holladay partner.  The partner was driving and on the phone at the same time. This was well before “hands free” phoning and some people are late adapters anyway. We slipped into a slow fishtail. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic”¦. unless you count the old fellow on his Wheelhorse plowing his driveway up ahead. He was completely unaware of our sliding toward him, hunched as he was over his little tractor, focused on making a straight pass down the driveway and turning neatly at the end”¦ which he did”¦ and which saved this story from a different ending because we just missed him. And you might say, he just missed us, ”˜cause he never knew that we bore in on him, just slid nicely to a stop, paused to straighten our wheels, and went on our way before he turned again for the next pass. Nor was a beat missed in the phone conversation by the way.
  • Corn Crib Follies. Okay on this one we can name the culprits: John Phair and me. We’ve all been in a lot of places for talks and meetings. In this case, it was a great late fall day in central Indiana, specifically on the farm of Morris Mills, our partner in AmeriPlex in Indianapolis.  Morris has been an active farmer, and I mean tractor-driving, calf-birthing farmer well into his later years. He had just come in from the field with a wagon full of corn, which was to be offloaded down into a pan in which an augur collected the grain and spun it up into the elevator”¦ a continuous operation once set up correctly. Well, John and I had some experience here, being consumers of corn products, so we helpfully placed the chute to where the augur would do the pick up. Problem was, we failed to secure the position and behind our backs the corn was dumping onto the ground in a golden stream of spoiled harvest. Well, it wasn’t really that bad. Morris had a good laugh and we re-committed to our day jobs.
  • Dump the Hummer. As long as we’re in the field with our farmer partner in Indianapolis, let’s all recall the time or times that the HumVee we had for awhile took on the gumbo challenge across muddy, fresh-plowed fields in AmeriPlex, before there was an AmeriPlex. Somewhere around the office there is a photo of one of the times our war-fighting machine got stuck and had to be pulled out by John Deere’s finest.  The moral is: whatever heavy metal you think you have, have a friend with a farm tractor close by.
  • The Salt Creek Witch. Even gives me a little of the creeps to think about this. Well, when AmeriPlex at the Port was nothing but Healy, Phair and Hunt trekking down abandoned roads and through thickets, we heard the story from a Portage cop who worked part time as security for the then owner, Bethlehem Steel. Seems this fellow was on the site late one day with his four year old daughter. He was looking for artifacts along the high bank over Salt Creek, the tributary which forms the east border of the property. He knew that in the 1800’s there was a trading post there and hoped to find an old cache of nails or some other hard goods, things that traders buried to foil thieves. Suddenly his daughter stiffened up and, pulling his sleeve, she said “Look Daddy, there is a lady swimming in the water.”  Of course he saw nothing but got a tingly feeling at the back of his neck (gives me one just recounting this!). Some time later, he was researching the history of this long gone outpost and comes to find that in the 1800’s, there was a drowning in Salt Creek. The victim was a woman.
  • A few bars and restaurants along the way. Shapiro’s Deli in Indy ”¦ in fact a lot of places in Indy”¦ John’s Famous Stews, the Airport Deli under the runway approach to “23L” ”¦  breaded pork tenderloin specials with Sesame buns at the Mug-N-Bun on Indy’s west side ”¦ chicken wings at Barringer’s south side tavern ”¦ there’s that place I can’t recall which seemed to have bite marks in its bar”¦ the Capitol Tavern where they charged you based on how expensive your tie looked, Bazbo’s pizza”¦ that pub in Broad Ripple where you could play darts”¦ and best of all, of course, St. Elmo’s, where it is best to be on the other guy’s expense account.
  • Witnessing the times. The Midwest seemed to be crumbling like a rusty oil drum during much of the 70’s. We’ve seen the insides of millions of square feet of closed factories, figuring how we could turn those wrecks into something useful to us and to the hometowns to which they once meant many jobs.  But by then”¦ high broken windows, resident pigeons, piles of empty skids and useless inventory. Weeds thriving in cracked empty parking lots.  Most of all, though, here and there scrawled on walls, dock doors, paint booths and boilers, the bitter humor of parting comments by long gone workers. Well, you can’t turn back the clock, but we did some good there. Felt pretty good about it too.
  • Public Hearings. Take the kids to these and they won’t need to study civics. First thing you do at a public hearing — like checking a racing form — is see where you are on the agenda. Then you realize in most cases it doesn’t matter because as often as not the official chairing the meeting will move items around, so you might come on late, after discussion of, say, a horsemeat processor or a “gentleman’s club” looking for a variance. But you gotta wait regardless, with your display boards resting against your knees and, if you have the controversial issue, you feel the daggers in your back from remonstrators. Generally, though, we’ve been pretty successful in these ordeals, sometimes after a few tries. I’ve always found it’s easier for me to make commitments in hearings when the partner who stays to run the project over time has to make good on them or explain them away. Tim Healy, you know who you are!
  • Sad sight in the Lehigh Valley. Well, we were there because that was the Pennsylvania headquarters of Bethlehem Steel, which owned the ground now known as AmeriPlex at the Port. We flew in to meet with the head of real estate and eventually we worked a deal which has turned out well for us. But the trip reminded me, again, of the changes that move under us as the times change. In this case, Bethlehem bought that 400 acres long ago with plans for another steel plant, more profits, more jobs.  By the time we went to those corporate offices, that was a long gone plan.  What I noticed most is how few people there were in all that space. This was a corporation hollowing out before your eyes. And of course Bethlehem Steel, whose legacy is in warships, skyscrapers and locomotives, doesn’t even exist as such anymore. That chapter is as closed as the headquarters we went to that day.
  • Man, have you ever had to have a meeting in a calving barn??  So that’s where all the flies go on a hot afternoon!
  • But what it’s worth sometimes. Driving down a country road late in the day when the corn is high on both sides, and along a lush mow strip fresh cut by the farmer. Or, also on a fall evening, when the last light lays gold over new-cropped fields, the deer foraging”¦ too busy to be jumping across the road. And seeing farmhouse lights starting to show up even as the sun lays low and bright in the west. And those grand county courthouses, of which we’re justly proud in Indiana.  And then so many small tough towns, where the railroad used to stop but now just trundles through”¦

We’re pretty lucky to be in this business.

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