Nancy Edmonds Hanson
You can see Steve Gehrtz’s handiwork nearly everywhere you look in Moorhead: The glossy new profile of Block E, an emblem of the city’s new downtown. The site on 30th Avenue South where Moorhead Schools’ new operations center is taking shape. The Eventide campus on Eighth Street, where crews are carving out underground parking for a four-story, 73-unit residence.
“It has taken a lot to get the momentum going, but Moorhead is moving now,” says the silver-haired, mustached businessman, who confesses he’s something of a jokester. “It’s been fun to be a part of it. I always wanted to make an impact – to be a leader.” He pauses, then adds, “The view is a lot better.”
When Steve steps down from his chair on the Moorhead City Council in August, he leaves behind a role in changing the city’s attitude toward development – an easy-to-spot trend apparent in businesses and residences taking shape all over town. He has resigned his seat after seven and one-half years on the eight-member board, halfway through his second term as an elected official representing Ward 4 in the rapidly growing southeast quadrant of the city. His position will remain vacant until the special election planned for November, when voters will decide on his replacement as well as the substantial bond issue to rebuild and renovate 50-year-old Moorhead High School.
“It was just time to go,” he says. “The press of business has gotten too great. Between our company’s increasing workload, the demands of public service and family life, something just had to give.” He adds, “When you’re now remodeling buildings that you built yourself back in the day, you know you’ve been in business for a long time.”
Building his own company was in the back of Steve’s mind even as he was wrapping up his degree in construction management at North Dakota State University in 1980. After 20 years employed by other firms, he launched his own business in the dignified old brick building in downtown Fargo once owned by Judge George Duis. It’s the one with the two-story-tall cowboy painted on its southern flank, and he’s still in it, directing one of the region’s largest commercial construction portfolios along with some 30 employees. He’s also a partner in Zerr-Berg Architects and “plays a very, very minor part,” he says, in EPIC Companies of West Fargo, the development firm for whom he has built a long list of high-profile projects.
Gehrtz Construction manages the projects that carry its name. The physical work, though, is subcontracted among other regional firms, who handle everything from excavation and framing to finishing. The Gehrtz group’s forte lies in oversight of the projects they handle – design, pre-construction planning, estimating construction costs, lining up and managing subcontractordsand the final step that the industry calls “project close,” handing over the keys to a satisfied client.
Besides Steve himself, the management team includes principal construction manager Dan Kleist and architects Brian Berg and Tony Wolf. Steve’s son Matt is one of the seven construction managers who oversee projects in the field.
Running for office in Moorhead was far outside Steve’s dreams when hee began building his business. He and his wife Elaine lived in Harwood for 11 years before moving to Moorhead in the mid-1990s, largely because many of their church friends from the Triumph Lutheran Brethren congregation lived nearby. They still reside on the west side of the Village Green Golf Course, where they raised their three now-adult children. In addition to Matt, who lives in Fargo with wife Kjerstin and 2-year-old daughter Vivienne, the family includes Jessica, who has a doctorate in mathematics education and is doing research in Georgia, and Mike, who works with Bethel Church as its technical director and head of its music ministry.
The notion to run for the city council in 2011 came as something of a surprise to both himself and to Elaine, a retired dental hygienist: “I just felt the need to be involved in our community,” he remembers. “We talked about it at the lake, and she eventually came around.” He was elected that fall and took his seat in the council chambers the following January. In 2016, he was elected to a regular four-year term.
No specific issue prompted him to run, he says now. It was more a matter of energizing the city’s approach to opportunities. “Back then, their attitude could be summed up, more or less, as ‘no,’” he observes. “Now it’s ‘What can we do to help you?’ Developers want to know how the city can help them be successful here, and they’re getting the right answers. You can see the results all around us.
“If we want to increase our tax base – and we do – we had to learn some lessons. The better we are at rooftops,” he says, pointing toward residential development, “the better we can be at attracting business. They go hand in hand. Especially on the business side, you need that residential growth.”
City staff have worked to smooth out some state-sanctioned bumps that have held back progress, most of all the disparities between North Dakota and Minnesota regulations. “We’ve worked to give builders options on how to keep specials lower, like using their own design firms for water and streets. We worked with the Home Builders Association to amend state rules on fire sprinklers this year,” he says. “It’s coming along. If we could just control the state a little better ….”
One of the biggest satisfactions of Steve’s seven and one-half years on the council has been increasing transparency in local government. “We need to have one set of rules for everybody. Everybody’s treated the same,” he emphasizes. “It has to be a level playing field. There used to be the perception, at least, that the city sometimes played favorites. No more! You can see the difference in all the activity going on around town.”
His greatest frustration with serving the city, he says, has been the lingering suspicion with which some citizens view his professional involvement in construction and development – matters that frequently do come before the city council. “I get characterized as doing what I do for personal gain. That’s absolutely the farthest thing from the truth,” he asserts. “When there’s even an inkling of conflict of interest, I consult with city attorney John Shockley, then stay out of the discussion and abstain from the vote.”
As he readies to leave the council, Steve points with regret to what he calls the increasing politicization of what should be a nonpartisan form of service. He suggests it has been caused, in part, by the voters’ decision to move city elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered, when they seem to melt into the cloud of partisan politics. “It distracts voters from local concerns to national partisan issues,” he says, “but it is what it is.”
He stresses, though, that members of the council generally succeed in focusing on what matters locally instead of ideologies that divide them. “[Former council member] Mari Dailey and I are about as far apart on the political spectrum as it’s possible to get,” he points out. “Yet when we were doing the city’s business, we voted alike 95 percent of the time. Politics don’t need to come into play when you’re doing what’s best for your city.”
Building up Moorhead
Nancy Edmonds Hanson