Joe Weis, a prolific Rochester developer known for his booming voice, ever-present cigar and his drive to build affordable housing, died this weekend at the age of 88.
Weis had been a fixture in the Rochester construction community since he and his brother Eugene took over their father’s work in 1952 with a garage as their first project. They launched Weis Builders in 1960.
Even as his sons and later his grandson took over the day-to-day operations of Weis Builders, he kept working on his own affordable housing projects under the name Weis Development Corp., building apartment complexes in Rochester and throughout Minnesota.
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In 2016, the Post Bulletin named Weis as “the Business Person of the Year.” In an interview, he talked of his dedication to his work and why he still came into the office every day.
"I don't plan on retiring. I'll die with my boots on," he said with a chuckle. His office walls were plastered with building plans and photos of him with famous politicians. "I have no hobbies other than politics, and that's not too healthy."
Mayor Kim Norton remembered Weis in comments on social media over the weekend.
“Rochester lost one of it’s biggest supporters and developers of affordable housing yesterday with the passing of Joe Weis. He always had a big personality, a good cigar and lots of ideas to share. He will be missed,” she wrote.
Weis was very active in Republican politics. He often showed up at events wearing red, white and blue ties and other patriotic symbols.
John Wade, former leader of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce and interim president of Rochester Economic Development Inc., remembered how Weis was willing to share his passion with a young man.
“The first time I met him, I was 16. He took me to a political event and that was a big deal,” said Wade. “He picked me up and gave me a ride in his Cadillac. He didn’t have to do that.”
Weis built his first affordable housing project -- Rochester Square -- with backing from the federal Housing and Urban Development agency in 1971. Most years, he had an affordable housing project in development in Rochester or elsewhere in the state. One of his last Rochester projects was Harvest Place II in northwest Rochester. It was built in 2019, when Weis was already in his late 80s.
While affordable housing was profitable for him, Weis conceded there are a lot easier ways to make money in the home construction business. However, building good places for low-income and sometimes homeless people to live offered more rewards than just profit.
"It is satisfying work," he said in 2016.
Weis is the latest in a recent string of long-time and high profile leaders of Rochester to pass away following Gus Chafoulias, Sandy Keith and Dave Bishop.
Wade commented that leaders like these men never lost sight of the bigger picture.
“They went that extra mile to not only build a successful business and take care of their family, but they also wanted to build better communities,” he said. “When they got together, they didn’t talk about their wealth or successes. They talked about what needed to be done… What was the next thing needed for the community.”