Alpha Omicron (Iowa State) alumnus Steve Emerson’s quiet rise to one of Cedar Rapids’ most important developers

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.

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.

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