WATERLOO — Ben Stroh built a business empire by recycling transformers.
The Waterloo entrepreneur is now working to transform his hometown by recycling two retail centers that had fallen into decay.
Stroh is the driving force behind Crossing Point Plaza, which turned the mostly empty Kmart Plaza at Crossroads Center into an attractive retail development housing Planet Fitness, Carlos O’Kelly’s, Tokyo Bay Japanese Steakhouse, Kwik Star, Freddy’s restaurant and other businesses.
Across town, Stroh is partnering with the city and UnityPoint Health to replace the blighted Logan Plaza strip mall and surrounding land with new development dubbed North Crossing. The former strip mall at U.S. Highway 63 and Donald Street has been razed, and work on new medical office buildings and retail stores are slated to begin soon.
Former Waterloo Mayor Buck Clark, who prodded and then worked with Stroh to get both projects moving, said the city was fortunate to have a local developer take them on when other potential investors were reluctant to “get off the dime.”
“Ben is a Waterloo boy and he’s very dedicated to Waterloo,” Clark said. “He’s done good for himself but has remembered his roots. He remembers where he came from and is reinvesting back into the city.”
Stroh grew up in Waterloo’s Highland area and attended East High School. His father, Bernie, was a bar owner, worked nearly three decades at Quality Mat Co. and served on the city’s Community Development Board, while his mother, Marsha, was a nurse.
“I’ve been in the scrap business basically since high school,” he said. “I had a water meter business and then did transformers.”
Stroh eventually formed A-Line E.D.S. in 1997, a company that decommissions transformers and related electrical equipment, sells grain-oriented steel to international markets and has operations in Arkansas, Flanders, S.D., and Tonkawa, Okla.
“We work coast to coast,” Stroh said during a recent interview. “My brother was in New York last night. My other brother’s working in Denver today. We’ve got work going on in Chicago, St. Louis and in Texas, all simultaneously.”
Stroh began investing profits in commercial real estate, the first major acquisition being the Odd Fellows building at Fourth and Main streets in downtown Cedar Falls in 2005.
“A lot of times people don’t appreciate how costly some of these renovations really are,” Stroh said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for all Jim Walsh has done in this town” with historic building renovations in downtown Waterloo through JSA Development.
“I don’t quite have the temperment to go through all the grant processes they do,” he added. “They still spend a tremendous amount of money rehabbing this stuff.”
Stroh learned more about construction when A-Line E.D.S. served as its own general contractor for an expansion at its Waterloo plant. But his confidence to invest in Crossing Point Plaza also involved a change in philosophy at City Hall.
While he may be camera shy — note his photo doesn’t accompany this article — Stroh isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
“We had a lot of places in city government where they were more interested in telling you want you can’t do instead of how to get it done,” he said. “Some people were reluctant to say some of the things I said, but I didn’t have to play by those rules and was able to speak more openly.
“A lot of that attitude has been addressed, and we broke through some barriers there,” he Stroh added. “Over the last many years I think the city of Waterloo has come around and has become more business and development friendly.”
A decision by the city to provide incentives to make project viable got Crossing Point Plaza off the ground.
“I know it took some courage from City Council members to do that, but I think the results have been good and getting better,” Stroh said. “Already people forget how ugly it used to be out there.”
Efforts to revitalize the 1960s-vintage Logan Plaza area were more complicated, working with the city, mall owners, UnityPoint Health and others to make it happen.
“Mayor Clark got the ball rolling and kind of convinced me that the city would stand up and help get this thing done,” he said. “Mayor (Quentin) Hart picked up the ball and made sure that we got it done.”
While the City Council stepped up with incentives essentially designed to cover the acquisition and demolition of Logan Plaza and surrounding land, Stroh was required to bankroll the project and be reimbursed over eight years.
“Getting a deal done there was very difficult,” Stroh said. “It was frustrating, but it was fun in hindsight. People at UnityPoint have been great to work with.”
The project is also a labor of love for Stroh, who grew up near Logan Plaza and remembers frequenting the hardware store there and getting ice cream at the Maid Rite restaurant on a school trip.
UnityPoint is already committed to locating several medical office buildings at the former Logan Plaza site while several other entities were signed or close to agreements for projects.
“It’s already unrecognizable out there now,” Stroh said. “But by this time next year somebody driving down 63 that hasn’t been to Waterloo for a few years is going to be amazed.”