How an ER doctor and his father became 2 of Boise’s highest-profile developers

Tommy Ahlquist with Gardner Co., the 8th & Main project developer, explains how the building will be organized during a tour of its construction Jan. 8, 2013.
Tommy Ahlquist with Gardner Co., the 8th & Main project developer, explains how the building will be organized during a tour of its construction Jan. 8, 2013. Idaho Statesman file

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Oct. 20, 2013.

J. Thomas “Tom” Ahlquist Jr. was in the sunset of a 40-year career as a mine electrician and construction manager in Salt Lake City when he received a surprising job proposition.

His son, Tommy, asked him to move to Boise to partner on several commercial construction projects. The call was unexpected for many reasons — not the least of which was this: Tommy was a full-time emergency room physician dabbling in development.

“I said, ‘I’m 60 years old, I’m not looking for a career change. I’m looking for retirement,’” the elder Ahlquist recalled.

He had reservations about his son getting too involved or distracted by development, particularly after all the time and money invested in medical school. But he took a leap of faith, leaving his job and native Utah for a new life in Idaho.

“Just the opportunity to work with my son” meant everything, said Tom Ahlquist, who arrived in the Treasure Valley in 2006.

The father-and-son duo, who teamed up with Utah-based Gardner Co. in 2007, confronted a major crisis early on: The recession brought development to a standstill. Tom was forced to sell his Eagle home, and he came close to filing personal bankruptcy.

Tommy, who was head of the Emergency Department at St. Luke’s Meridian Medical Center, hunkered down and stayed optimistic. It was a difficult period, but it didn’t sour him on development.

“That was one of the things that always impressed me about him, “ said Christian Gardner, president and CEO of Gardner Co. “When the recession hit, a lot of people said, ‘I’m done. Why stay in real estate?’ But Tommy didn’t.”

Gardner Co.’s Boise office — where Tommy is now chief operating officer and Tom is vice president of construction - is on the 12th floor of the U.S. Bank Plaza. That building, which Gardner recently acquired for $43 million, offers a glorious view of their highest-profile project to date in the Treasure Valley: the 18-story Zions Bank building at 8th and Main, derided for decades as the “Boise Hole.”

It’s on track to be finished in January.

“That’s the crown jewel, “ said Dr. Tad Cowley, a Boise ER physician who first met Tommy Ahlquist when they were both residents at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.

Best friends ever since, Cowley convinced Ahlquist and his wife, Shanna, to move to the Valley in 1999. He isn’t as surprised as others by the talented physician’s fascination with building new things.

Developer by day, physician by night

Knowing a little bit about everything is part of the job of emergency physicians, and it attracts people who have a lot of interests and hobbies, Cowley said.

Tommy Ahlquist gets a thrill out of the transformational aspect of development.

“Watching something be developed and built and bring value — there’s nothing like it, “ he said. “Each project is so challenging.”

Ahlquist, a 45-year-old father of four who lives in Eagle, is blessed with the ability to function at a high level on four to six hours of sleep (with an assist from Diet Coke).

For six years, he worked the night shift in the emergency room at St. Luke’s in Meridian. Then he’d spend the day on development.

“I had 20 hours a day of productivity, “ said Ahlquist, disappointed that middle age has robbed him of that.

One of his first big development ideas was to turn a residential area next to St. Luke’s into medical and professional offices.

In 2005 and 2006, the young physician went door to door to convince 18 residents living on property near the hospital to sell their homes. That 24-acre site became The Portico at Meridian, which has 252,000 square feet of medical and professional office space, 34,000 square feet of retail and a four-diamond hotel site.

“The work he did around Meridian St. Luke’s - buying up the houses and land - in terms of work that he had to do and the risk he had to take, that was remarkable, “ Cowley said. “People will never understand how hard that was.”

Ahlquist said he got his work ethic from his dad. He was exposed to the nuts-and-bolts of major construction growing up. His dad worked his way from being an electrician at the Kennecott Copper Mine to being a trusted construction manager for The Boyer Co., which builds commercial and medical facilities around the country.

It’s no mistake that most of the half-dozen large projects that the Ahlquists have completed with Gardner Co. over seven years are in some way connected to health care. They include The Portico, Unity Health Center in Meridian, St. Luke’s Nampa Medical Plaza, St. Luke’s Surgery Center in Meridian and West Valley Medical Complex in Caldwell.

“With Boyer, my dad builtdozens of medical facilities, “ Tommy Ahlquist said. “It’s his wheelhouse.”

With their respective backgrounds, they believed that health care facilities would be their niche in Idaho. But they’re a full-service real estate company that’s open to almost anything.

One of Tommy’s first projects in the Valley was a mixed-use development on State Street called Eagle Island Crossing.

For that project, Ahlquist built the campus of the private school Arts West, now Fresco Arts Academy. All of his children go to school there; his eldest, Thomas, 18, has graduated and is currently on a two-year church mission in Finland.

Tommy Ahlquist is on the three-member school board for Fresco. The school focuses on nurturing kids’ creativity through participation in the arts. About 135 students attend the school, which has a high percentage of graduates who receive full-ride scholarships to college.

Due to the recession, some of the commercial buildings planned for the west side of Eagle Island Crossing weren’t built. Now Gardner Co. is partnering with North Dakota-based Edgewood Group LLC to build a senior living community there.

The 9-acre community will have 44 independent living patio homes and 70 units with assisted living. Ahlquist believes there will be valuable multigenerational interaction between seniors and Fresco students.

“It will create a unique atmosphere for learning,” he said.

A career in medicine

Tommy Ahlquist talked about wanting to become a doctor from the time he was a little boy. He’d sometimes grab his dad’s empty lunch pail and pretend it was a physician’s bag.

“He’d say, ‘I’m going to help people and fix them up,’” said his father, now 66.

Tommy said he was influenced by doctors in different fields: Dr. Conrad Knowles, a family physician who lived near his home in the west Salt Lake suburb of Hunter; and his hero of the hardwood, the NBA’s Julius Erving — better known as Dr. J.

“I was in the car with my aunt the first time she told me that Dr. J wasn’t a physician, “ he said, laughing at how shocked he was as a child.

But Knowles was the real deal.

“He was kind and wonderful. I thought it would be great to take care of people, “ said Tommy Ahlquist, who originally wanted to be a pediatrician.

In fact, “caring” and “generous” are words that family and close friends most often use to describe the gentle giant, who is 6-foot-5.

Ahlquist was a top student and athlete in high school and went on to play basketball at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in Rexburg.

Raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ahlquist left Ricks College after a year to do a two-year church mission in Brazil. He then finished his bachelor’s in biology at the University of Utah, and stayed on to go to medical school. A mentor steered him into emergency medicine.

Cowley was one year ahead of Ahlquist in his residency in Tucson.

“Within just a couple of months of him starting his training, he already had the confidence and demeanor of a senior resident, “ Cowley recalled. “He was capable of seeing more patients during a shift than most of the senior residents.”

Ahlquist embraced the challenge.

“I had a blast, “ he said. “I was ready to take care of people, and learn and grow.”

A few years after Ahlquist moved to the Treasure Valley, he and Cowley started a business called Stat Pads, which sells defribrillators and provides training on how to use them. The Boise business has 15 full-time employees.

Full speed ahead

Until two months ago, Ahlquist was still working one night a week as an ER physician. He’s stepped away to focus on development and other affairs, including serving as a bishop in his ward.

He hopes to keep his medical license current through his involvement with Unity Health, where he is the medical director.

“I just don’t know where he’ll go next, “ said Cowley, who noted that Ahlquist has previously talked about a medical mission to an undeveloped country. “Maybe he’ll stay doing what he’s doing.”

Tommy Ahlquist told the Statesman that he hopes his son comes home to work with him after finishing college and law school. That’s a decade down the road.

Debbie Cleverley, a Boise banker and close friend, said people in the community are nudging Ahlquist to run for office. He said he has no political aspirations.

“It would have to motivate me and drive me more than what I have in front of me does,” he said. “In politics, you have to be more patient. It’s harder and takes more patience to grind through things.

“After being able to move things along at private sector speed, I don’t know how it would feel to be in politics and see things change slowly.”

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller