Armstrong Development’s Dusek honored

By Bekah Porter

CEDAR RAPIDS – The article started out quite complimentary.

“Jon Dusek had earned his place in Midwest Real Estate News’ Hall of Fame long before the terrible floods hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 2008. But his work following these floods cemented his spot.”

The writing only got more glowing after that.

The Cedar Rapids commercial real estate man known best for being president of Armstrong Development Co. recently snagged a spot in the publication’s prestigious Commercial Real Estate Hall of Fame, and a profile highlighting his work was included in the December/January issue.

While the magazine had plenty of good things to say — “(Mr. Dusek) is truly the definition of leadership, reacting to adverse conditions with grace, patience and optimisim,” one line reads — community leaders who have seen Mr. Dusek’s accomplishments firsthand were not to be outdone.

“(Mr. Dusek) is one of our greatest downtown advocates,” said Doug Neumann, president of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District. “He embraces the big-picture vision for downtown, but he also reminds us about the little stuff that matters most when he’s negotiating face-to-face with a potential business tenant or trying to put together a development deal. He’s a smart and savvy dealer who has had a very positive influence on the success of downtown Cedar Rapids.”

Yet in the face of this praise, the man in the spotlight steps to the side, downplaying his actions, saying they were just part of the bigger picture of what needed to be done.

Here’s what else he had to say about his flood-recovery efforts, his 30-plus year career, and the real estate trends he anticipates for the Corridor in the coming months:

Q: How would you describe your attitude regarding the flood recovery efforts?

A: Well, first you have to get over the shock. For us, we kind of went from that attitude where we were placing sand bags and thinking there would be minimal damage to all of a sudden having total damage. We had to regroup and figure out that no, in fact, the world’s not coming to an end. You have to get up every day and work hard. We had to get up and assist as many of our tenants as we could in finding alternative locations, since we had more than 110 tenants displaced. I think you just do what’s expected. I mean, what else are you going to do after a disaster? You have to go on. It’s life, and I think that’s pretty much (the attitude) you saw people take all throughout Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about that attitude.

Q: In your 30-plus years of being in commercial real estate, what are some of the projects of which you’re most proud?

A: There’s a couple. First, I’m proud that we’ve been redeveloping downtown Cedar Rapids properties for more than 20 years. That would be the No. 1 thing. Another thing is that we redeveloped the old Armstrong Department Store into office space for high-tech companies, and we had it 100 percent leased. And then came the big meltdown on Wall Street for high-tech companies, and we were leasing to some of these companies, and they went bankrupt, and then I had a bunch of space open again. But we recouped, and that refilled pretty well again, but then we had the flood. But we’re coming back from that now. So, I’m proud that we’re able to keep going. That’s part of life. You have hurdles, and you have to keep working through them. Another thing I’m proud of is that we developed a 30-acre office park in Hiawatha called Longfellow Square Business Park, and now there are 12 businesses out there. It’s a class A business park, and I feel good about that.

Q: How would you define recovery?

A: For me, for starters, I’d really like to see all the storefronts filled up. The downtown still has some ground-level space available. In the (Armstrong Development Co.’s) case, we just leased the last piece of ground-level space that had been vacated, so I feel pretty fortunate. When the flood first happened, I gave myself a two-year time frame for getting back to where we were pre-flood, and we didn’t quite make it. But I think here pretty soon we in the downtown will be seeing some new tenants and some new private investments. And I think recovery really is defined by private investments. When companies are investing their own money, as opposed to government money, that’s when you know recovery is really happening.

Q: How would you describe the Armstrong Center’s role in the downtown?

A: It’s a significant building, in that it’s in the middle of the skywalk system. It’s a pretty visible building, and people look to visible buildings. For example, when we’re struggling with vacancies, that tends to give a negative impression. All people can see are the ground floors. They don’t see what’s going on in the upper levels. So, right now, we have about 20 percent vacancy, which is about seven or eight vacant spaces. Of course, that’s a result of the flood compounded with the economic downturn. And I think (the vacancies) will start to change. I think 2011 will see some better results, but I don’t think it’s going to be a rocket ship, either. I think it’s going to be slow and gradual. And I think when (downtown buildings like ours) are filling up (the more visible ground level spaces) that will instill more confidence, it will send a more positive impression.

Additionally, I think we’ve played a big role in that we’re one of a handful of buildings that serves as a space for startup businesses. I’m actually chair of the Entrepreneurial Development Center, so I’ve been very interested in what we as a town and a state can do to help entrepreneurs grow, and our building is playing its part. We’ve had companies that started with two people and are now up to 80 to 90 in the course of four years or so. I think we as a downtown building have worked hard to accommodate entrepreneurs by providing affordable space.

Q: What do you think is necessary for a downtown to thrive, and what role can real estate play in that process?

A: I think ideally you want a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour downtown. You want people working, living and recreating downtown. In Cedar Rapids, there are obviously a lot of cultural venues, and whoever has been working on downtown development over the years has done a good job of keeping the major cultural institutions down here. And we still have a pretty large percentage of employment downtown, and I have a lot of confidence (there will be even higher downtown employment numbers) in the next two years, better than where we were before the flood, frankly. The place where we may be lacking a little bit now is the housing end of things. But there are a few projects going on that will add to that.

Q: What do you think is the most interesting real estate trend you’ve observed in the Corridor in the past year or so?

A: The one thing that I find particularly interesting is that we’ve had architects and contractors come to Cedar Rapids from out of state because they see so much going on in Cedar Rapids. Now, again, most of those are public sector projects, but I think it’s helped buoy our economy, and I think it will follow up with a good uptick in private projects. But it is unusual, because we’re not used to people coming down from Minneapolis, saying that there’s nothing going on up there and that there’s so much work happening here.

Q: What would you like to see emerge from the real estate market in the Corridor in the next few years?

A: Obviously, I would like to see some growth and some new construction. Commercial real estate is a follower. We don’t build space and then try to lease it. We respond to demand, and I’m hoping we’re going to see stronger demand. In many ways, the flood has given both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids a chance. We’ve got some pretty exciting projects here, and we have an opportunity to come back bigger and better and to stimulate the economy in the process.

Additionally, I’d like to see more private investment, like the medical mall on Second Ave. That’s a very significant project.

Q: The Midwest Real Estate News said you had earned your place in the Hall of Fame before the floods, but that your work after cemented your spot. What do you think about this statement, and how would you describe the differences between the pre-flood you and the post-flood you?

A: I’ve got a few more gray hairs now, if that counts. No, really, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference. At least, I don’t perceive any change, other than that the flood served as a wakeup call, in a way. It gets you thinking about what’s important, and how vital it really is to pull together as a community and try to come back bigger and better.

Q: What would you consider some of your most significant contributions after the flood?

A: I think part of it was leading by example. (Our company) was one of the first few that got back into rebuilding and remodeling spaces, and we got right back in and got our tenants back, and it made a statement. I don’t think we’re exclusive in that by any means, but I think we did help in that regard. We had seven buildings flooded, so we’re a pretty big footprint in the downtown, and if we hadn’t done something, it would’ve had a negative effect.

Q: What was your reaction to being named to the Hall of Fame?

A: Well, I was very surprised, to be honest, but it’s very humbling. There’s a lot of impressive people in that list, and only three from Iowa. It’s quite an honor, and I think there’s a lot of other people who could’ve been named. CBJ