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Rob Link, influential Duluth developer, dies at 66

J.R. “Rob” Link stands on the roof of the Wieland Block with the Technology Village in the background in May, 2012. Link died at his home at the age of 66 Saturday. (file photo / News Tribune)

As a developer, J.R. "Rob" Link's projects were among the most visible in Duluth.

He led construction of Superior Street's Technology Village and the revitalization of the Wieland Block across the street.

When a fire gutted the Chinese Lantern building on West First Street in 1994, Link purchased the property and renovated it for new commercial use.

In West Duluth, when the closure of Diamond Tool and Horseshoe Co. lead to an abandoned industrial site along busy Grand Avenue, he helped usher in the construction of a retail center and medical clinic.

"He was someone who would get things done," former Duluth Mayor Gary Doty said. "He was always looking forward. He always felt that Duluth was going to continue to grow."

Link, a principal partner at Duluth's A&L Properties, died Saturday at his home, according to friends and colleagues. He was 66.

Those who worked with him over the past three decades described him as one of the city's most influential and successful developers, crediting him with leading a resurgence in downtown Duluth.

"There is a small handful of people that you can really call leaders of commercial property development in Duluth, and Rob was one of them," said Brian Hanson, president of the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion. "He was a guy who really understood and knew how to take a calculated risk."

Born and raised in Minneapolis, and the son of a construction worker, Link owned a number of small businesses in Minnesota and North Dakota before coming to Duluth in 1985.

He was named president of Jamar Co. — a position he held for 15 years — by owner Lee Anderson, who later became his business partner.

Together, Anderson and Link expanded and diversified the company's interests, acquiring several other specialty contracting companies as well as a supplier of construction materials.

In 1990, the partners formed A&L Properties, with Link serving as the local developer and Anderson — whose APi Group owns more than 40 companies throughout the world — as the financial backer.

He was a driver of the Technology Village project, which came with its fair share of controversies and lawsuits in the late 1990s, at a time when cities throughout the country were looking to take advantage of the dot-com boom.

The five-story structure at Lake Avenue and Superior Street never turned Duluth into a "Silicon Valley of the north," as envisioned by city and economic leaders, but it is almost fully occupied and brings an annual net income of more than $2 million, A&L reported last year.

Link also had a vision for downtown living options — something few others saw locally at the time, Doty said. The former mayor added that significant employers like Cirrus Aircraft probably wouldn't be in Duluth without Link's involvement.

"He was instrumental in bringing growth to Duluth," Doty said. "Any time we had big players looking at Duluth, we made sure to get Rob involved. His enthusiasm was second to none. He was a futurist; he looked ahead."

A&L's properties also include downtown Duluth's Phoenix Building, the Superior City Center and several office and medical buildings on London Road.

Link in May 2015 announced that he and Anderson planned to sell off their remaining properties, but said he hoped he and his team could continue to serve as property managers.

"If I could afford to buy them all myself, I would," he told the News Tribune at the time. "There's no way I would be selling these buildings, but that's what Lee Anderson wants to do, and he is the majority shareholder. So that's what I'm going to do, and I'll do it to the best of my ability, whether I want to or not."

Link reported at the time that he had been behind the construction of 41 buildings in Northeastern Minnesota over 25 years.

Jack Seiler, who owns Security Jewelers on East Superior Street, never went into business with Link, but described him as a longtime friend.

"I don't think anybody has done more to build up downtown Duluth," he said. "And that includes any mayor or any politician. He had a real vision and was able to take property that was so downtrodden and worthless and make it valuable."

Elaine Hansen, director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Minnesota Duluth, described Link as a "catalyst" for downtown.

She said construction of the Tech Village, and redevelopment of the Wieland Block, played a significant role in bringing new business to the Old Downtown area.

"The renaissance downtown would not have happened without his foresight and enthusiasm and dreams," she said. "He could see things that others did not. He knew the history of buildings. He knew their importance to the community."