Obituary: Gregg Schwotzer / Property developer who built up charities, too
July 19, 1949 – Aug. 8, 2014
August 10, 2014 12:00 AM
By Anya Litvak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One hot summer day in the early 1970s, when Gregg Schwotzer was a college student at Duke working a summer job in construction, he peered over the edge of a high-rise in Wheeling, W.Va., to observe a group of suits gathered 10 stories below.
“Do you know these people?” asked a fellow laborer.
Sure, Mr. Schwotzer said, and pointed to his father, Arthur Schwotzer, leading the crowd.
Anyone whose dad owns buildings like the one they were sweltering in that day should be sitting in an air conditioned office, the other worker said.
“I can’t learn there,” Mr. Schwotzer answered. “I can only learn here.”
As soon as he graduated from Duke in 1972, the younger Mr. Schwotzer joined his father’s property development business, Crossgates Inc. in McMurray, and rose to be its president and CEO. On Friday, he succumbed to a chronic pulmonary illness at the age of 65.
Mr. Schwotzer had “somewhat of an embryo start” in real estate, his father said.
“I sent him to school to be an engineer, but engineering was not his forte. But negotiating and working a deal was more to his liking,” Arthur Schwotzer said.
Mr. Schwotzer (who earned a degree in economics) became the president of Crossgates in 1993. More precisely, he gave his father a stack of business cards naming the senior Schwotzer chairman of the board, as a nudge to vacate the presidential title.
Arthur Schwotzer was planning just such a move, so “it was timely,” he said. But “he didn’t wait for me to announce it.”
In 2003, he took over as Crossgates’ CEO.
The company, which has been around since the 1950s, has varied real estate interests. It develops single-family housing, public housing, hotels, luxury condos, nursing homes and office parks. It works with government entities and private companies.
The breadth is a reflection of the Schwotzers’ “entrepreneurial creativity,” said David Ruef, a senior vice president at Crossgates who joined the firm in 2000.
Shortly after Mr. Ruef came on board, Mr. Schwotzer took him on a ride to Harrisburg to look at a development opportunity. It was his first solo project, Arthur Schwotzer said. The land was a 100-acre parcel with three vacant buildings and a drive-in theater.
“I didn’t see what he saw,” Mr. Ruef recalled. “I’m seeing a ratty old drive-in and nasty buildings, and he sees development.”
Fourteen years later, the space has a million square feet of hotel, retail and office space. It was developed as a joint venture with an Allentown development company and, notably, without a single cross word, according to Gregg Feinberg, managing partner of TecPort Partners.
“We did $60 million worth of work in Harrisburg together. We borrowed a lot of money. We built a lot of buildings, roads and infrastructure. We never fought about anything, which is just absurd,” Mr. Feinberg said. “I fight and argue with people, but we just got along. He was the kind of guy you want to do business with and be friends with.”
Outside of his considerable business interests, Mr. Schwotzer spent a lot of time helping charities. He was the past president and director of Catholic Charities of Western Pennsylvania, was on the board of directors at the Wesley Institute and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and gave his time to a number of professional trade groups.
“He believed that if you were a person of a certain stature in business that you had an obligation regarding certain activities. One of them was to serve on professional boards and to help those where you can,” Mr. Ruef said. “You ask, he gives. He believed that that was his responsibility.”
That’s how Mr. Schwotzer ended up as chairman of the board at Homewood Renaissance Association, an organization dedicated to providing opportunities and services to the Homewood community.
Mr. Schwotzer got involved with the group in 2011, when his pastor asked him to give an assessment of a building that had been destined to be a Family Dollar store but was abandoned by the discount chain and lay empty.
The plight of the organization spoke to Mr. Schwotzer and he became one of its catalysts, earning the nickname Lucky, after Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a 1920s mobster featured in the contemporary movie “Hoodlum.”
It was an ironic title — Mr. Schwotzer was very much a by-the-book kind of operator, his colleagues say.
But he was also known as someone who could navigate a complicated system to get things done.
“He would teach us the professionalism in the way of business,” said the Rev. Eugene “Freedom” Blackwell, CEO of Homewood Renaissance. “[It’s] not only Lucky as in the character, but also lucky in that we were blessed to have him.”
In addition to his father, Mr. Schwotzer is survived by his wife, Pamela Schwotzer; his daughter, Erica Schwotzer; and his brother, Eric Schwotzer, all of whom live in Peters.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.