Bruce Gerleman is a developer, general contractor and restaurateur best known for reviving the Court Avenue district and creating Jethro’s. We asked him to lunch recently to talk about his career in Des Moines. He chose the Altoona Jethro’s.
“This is the most successful store in the chain. We will serve some 1,700 meals a day on weekends here. I am particularly proud of the cold smoked steaks. They taste like they just came off the campfire,” he said.
Gerleman began his career after graduating from Wichita State where he majored in marketing and played football.
“I was 22 and had $800 in my bank account. I took a job with Simmons selling Beauty Rest mattresses along with a program I designed to help stores market them. Des Moines was part of my territory. Younkers and Pidgeon’s were my top clients here.
“My goal was to buy one piece of an apartment building each year. By the second year, I was buying two a year. I left the company when I was 26 to go full time as a developer and landlord.”
He moved to Des Moines, and his first purchase was the Crawford Mansion where he was the first Iowa developer to use new historic tax credit legislation. Then he bought the Governor Cummings Mansion and the Polk Mansion near Terrace Hill.
“The Polk Mansion was such a wreck that the Jaycees were using it as their haunted house,” he recalled.
Bob Newsome owned the Homestead Building at the time, and it was so far from being up to code that the city condemned it.
“Bob put a coffin in the window and invited the homeless to move in. They just used the basement as a dumpster. Dick Olson was mayor at the time, and he had pushed the Civic Center and Nollen Plaza through, so he was livid. Bill Knapp wanted to buy the place and tear it down for a parking lot. Newsome liked my plan better and sold it to me for $453,000 in 1983,” Gerleman recalled.
Gerleman, with RDG as one partner, opened the refurbished building in 1984. That was the first use of tax credits for historic renovations in downtown. Also in 1983, Gerleman began buying up Court Avenue area properties in disrepair. In a year’s time, he purchased 11 properties there without letting anyone know what he was up to. The key to this was a hole in the ground.
“I bought a parking lot from Joe Proctor that was adjacent to where Ted Glasrud was building the Plaza. Glasrud offered Proctor lots more money, but Joe said a deal was a deal and stuck with me. Glasrud needed the lot for staging and storing soil for the foundation work. I gave him a 12-month lease with agreement his rent would triple if he was still using it after a year. He thought that was no problem, but then he ran into underground water and the project suffered a two-year delay. That rent money financed my Court Avenue acquisitions,” he said.
Many of the buildings he bought were rather notorious. A biker bar, several gay bars, The Blue Nude with its peep shows, and a brothel were amongst them.
“I helped the gay bars move to the east side. They are still there,” Gerleman recalled.
The most eccentric building was the Saddlery Building. Gerleman bought part of it from Joe Coppola, but Harry and Anna Gold owned the rest.
They were in their 80s then and valued their lives in hat inventory. The building was stacked to the rafters on five floors with a quarter-million hats of all kinds. They were willing to sell but insisted I also buy the hats. It took us a long time to evaluate their worth. I ended up paying $400,000, and two thirds of that was for hats,” he said.
A month-long hat sale turned into a national phenom after “The Today Show” did a segment about it.
“Truckers and cowboys were coming in from all over the country. I took cash only and sold most hats for $5, $10 and $20. I stuffed the money in hat boxes. In a month, I paid the entire building off with hat sale money,” Gerleman said.
Gerleman owned the entire north side of Court Avenue between Fourth and Third, plus more on Fourth and Third. All buildings were under construction during the same year with 270 workers. Build it, and they will come. All opened in 1986 with Jukebox Saturday Night, Kaplan Hat restaurant, AG Edwards, Des Moines Chamber of Commerce and Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau as key tenants. Gerleman also built the skywalk from Walnut to Court.
“I was still the only one in Iowa using historic tax credits. Since I was my own general contractor, I was asked to do similar projects in Georgia and Colorado. I won several architectural awards for a project in Savannah, in an old building where ‘Roots’ had been shot,” he added.
After that, Gerleman received an Urban Development Action grant from HUD to buy the Depot, which had been vacant since 1970.
“Connie Wimer agreed to move all of her businesses there, and we opened with gold bricks and both U.S. Senators there,” he remembered.
Gerleman then moved his attention to a World Trade Center. John Ruan was also wanting to build one here.
“Basically, they were a franchise that were wired into each other, mostly by Telex. I went to D.C. to try to buy a franchise, but Ruan had rights to Des Moines. So I asked if I could buy rights to Cedar Rapids and build a Des Moines branch. That worked, and the Younkers Store for Homes was for sale,” Gerleman recalled.
“I led trade missions to China, Japan and Hungary. We did this all without any city support. Ruan was still miffed at me, and he had a lot of power. I was losing tenants. The Chamber moved to the Ruan Building and others, too. I had to sell the trade center,” he recalled.
The Locust Mall had been built about this time for $15 million. It was half empty and was for sale for $5 million. Gerleman managed to buy it with no money down and lease it back to the seller. The city was building a parking garage at Fourth and Grand then, and Gerleman proposed a plan that included complementary construction that included deals for a Firestone service center on Grand, a restaurant and a Four Seasons convenience store on Second Street.
“The City Council voted it down, 4-3. Mayor John Dorian said he wasn’t going to let a convenience store’s plastic cups litter downtown. I was so mad that I left Des Moines for 15 years, mostly working in Florida, though I did build a lake and housing in Warren County. I didn’t do anything else here until I opened the first Jethro’s in 2008,” he said.
Today, Gerleman is finishing his biggest Jethro’s, in Ames.
“It will be the largest sports bar in the entire Big 12. We took over an entire Aldi’s, 16,000 square feet. The letters in the signage are so large I can’t believe they got approved,” he said. ♦