Executive Q&A: Tom Capp- Gorman set sights on urban projects


Tom Capp has held many jobs in his career, with all of them seeming to lead to his present position as chief operating officer for Gorman & Co.

Capp has worked as an urban planner for a private firm and he has handled land use policy for county government. He ran his own communications company, and he served two terms as mayor of Fitchburg. Capp also led a neighborhood association in Fitchburg and served on the planning commission right after Fitchburg became a city in the mid-1980s.

That experience served him well, he said, in landing his first job 15 years ago with Gorman & Co., a real estate development company now celebrating its 25th year. It focuses on building and managing affordable rental housing.

Capp’s arrival in 1994 as director of real estate development for the company started by and still led by president Gary Gorman coincided with a change of emphasis from affordable housing located mostly on the edges of cities – “where nobody could complain about it being built,” Capp said – to their downtowns and historic districts.

“The whole urban focus (of Gorman & Co.) was a reaction to the way the world was going,” said Capp, who became chief operating officer in 1996. “I came with a real perspective from government, and having been a planner with both governmental and private-sector clients, I really had a sense of how powerful urban development would be as a direction.”

In addition to downtown revitalization, Gorman & Co. specializes in historic preservation, adaptive reuse of buildings and construction of affordable housing. Area projects include apartments for the Allied Drive neighborhood in Madison and the renovation of the historic Fairbanks Flats Rowhomes in Beloit, for which the company won a 2009 historic preservation award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Q: How has the focus on urban renewal changed how Gorman & Co. does business?

A: It really gave us a different role in the marketplace, because we were no longer primarily developers who would find a piece of land and propose a project for it and try to get it pushed through the city approval process. Instead, we would be working hand-in-hand with communities usually on projects they had already identified. We come in as problem solvers and partner with them.

The vast majority of developments we do now are not our own ideas. Very often, it’s a community calling us and saying, “We saw X project that you did. We’d like to sit down and talk to you about how we could do something similar.” We recently did housing for a regional medical campus in La Crosse, and that was the idea of the city of La Crosse.

Q: Gorman & Co. frequently uses governmental subsidies such as federal low-income tax credits, block grants or tax incremental financing to get projects done. Why is that assistance necessary?

A: The marketplace is not able to produce it directly. Our basic approach is that we usually are solving some other problem for the community while we’re creating affordable housing. We might be rebuilding a brownfield site, so we might be solving an environmental problem.

We very often are taking a historic asset that might be highly visible but might be empty, so we are taking a white elephant building that’s become a symbol of decline in an area and giving it an active use. Most of the development in revitalizing areas are what they call catalytic projects. They spark other economic development because they become a symbol of high quality going into a neighborhood.

Or we might be solving unemployment issues for an area. We’re working in some very tough neighborhoods in places like the north side of Milwaukee.

We often hold job fairs for people who live in the neighborhoods to try to tie them together with the subcontractors who will be bidding on the development.

We also have worked alongside the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to pioneer their emerging business program, where we set targets to have X percentage of the construction for a development contracted by an emerging (or minority) business.

Q: How has the housing downturn affected what you do?

A: It’s extremely volatile. Right now, with the debt markets, there’s virtually no one lending to construction. We’ve had a real stalling out of all sectors of construction for the last 18 months, two years. … But the federal government has put a couple programs into place that are starting to have their effects. There are federal stimulus funds that are being received through the states we’re working with and they are starting to wash into the system now.

Q: Gorman & Co. has begun doing housing projects in Arizona, Illinois and Florida, and in areas of Mississippi and Louisiana devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Why the emphasis on expansion?

A: We wanted to diversify a little bit. We were very much dependent on the Midwestern market, which can be very solid. But we did want to grow in a deliberate way, and the way to have the best choice of projects was to get into a couple of more diverse markets.

TOM CAPP
Chief operating officer of Gorman & Co. since June 2006
Degree: From the University of Illinois, economics and political science
Family: Married with four children
Corporate headquarters: 200 N. Main St., Oregon, with offices in Milwaukee, Miami and Phoenix
Employees: 140
Founded: 1984
Web site: www.gormanusa.net/gormanusa