Phillip Emmer was remembered as a champion of quality housing for blacks that was unheard of as the Jim Crow era neared an end, as well as an innovative business, community and philanthropic leader.
Emmer died Monday at age 89. He was memorialized Thursday at Congregation B’nai Israel in Gainesville.
He was described as a devoted father, husband and friend, mentor, innovative and shrewd businessman, adventurous driver, committed philanthropist who loved giving back to his community, loyal, confident, great mentor, respectful, trusting and more.
“He was a pioneer,” said his daughter, Lori McGriff, after receiving condolences and well wishes at the end of the service from the more than 100 people who attended the memorial.
McGriff said her father came to Gainesville specifically to build Lincoln Estates in southeast Gainesville so blacks could have quality housing that was affordable.
“At that time, they (blacks) weren’t able to get mortgages and he worked hard to help them get financing,” McGriff said.
Emmer was one of the nation’s largest developers of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development turnkey public housing programs through his innovation in the development of Lincoln Estates, according to his obituary in The Sun.
Besides developing Lincoln Estates, which is still a vibrant community nearly 60 years later, Emmer was instrumental in the building of facilities for the Reichert House Youth Academy in southeast Gainesville that serves at-risk boys. He was also generous with his time and money for many other causes, including Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County, Community Foundation of North Central Florida, Dance Alive National Ballet, PACE Center for Girls, University of Florida and numerous organizations and charities, McGriff said.
Emmer was born in New York, but raised in Miami. He earned a degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech University in 1949, and he served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1950-52 on a project mapping the Philippines. He married his wife Barbara in 1956, and together they raised three children, McGriff, Robert Emmer and Jodi Emmer, who died in 2009.
Emmer Development Corporation was founded in Miami as Emmer and Company in 1954. The company moved to Gainesville in 1960 and grew from a small-volume homebuilding outfit into one of North Central Florida’s largest home and apartment building, land development and real estate management companies that built more than 8,200 units in single- and multi-family developments — including single-family starter homes, HUD turnkey housing, luxury apartments and homes.
The company maintains its main office in Gainesville, with other offices in Ocala, Pensacola, Ormond-by-the-Sea and Seminole County.
Rory Causseaux, managing principal at CHW Professional Consultants in Gainesville, spoke during the memorial. He said his relationship with Emmer, which spanned 26 years, began with Emmer being his client, but soon morphed into Emmer becoming his friend and mentor.
Causseaux told a couple of stories about how it was always an adventure being a passenger while Emmer was driving. He said Emmer once passed a car in a tight situation that left him breathless, and would often throw change at toll booths as he passed them when they were traveling to Sanford on business.
“Lights would start flashing and he would say, ‘I love doing that,’” Causseaux said.
Emmer treated all of his employees like family and looked out for them, especially during tough times, Causseaux said.
“Phil and Emmer Development maintained their staffing levels throughout the Great Recession, and that shows how dedicated he was to his employees,” Causseaux said.
Tony Jones, Gainesville’s police chief, also spoke during the service. Jones grew up in southeast Gainesville and learned to appreciate Lincoln Estates and respect Emmer after learning as an adult about the obstacles Emmer had to clear to develop Lincoln Estates.
Emmer was a great leader because he had standards, didn’t mince words and cared about people, Jones said.
“He made it possible for many people to have decent housing and a safe community to live in,” Jones said.
One of those people is Doris Edwards, who attended the service just a couple of hours after learning of Emmer’s death. Edwards, 71, told The Sun she remembers Emmer coming to the “shotgun” style house her family was living in when she was about 14 years old to talk to her mother and others about the vision he had for Lincoln Estates. At the time, Edwards said, her family was living on Southeast First Lane off South Main Street on the land where a new Gainesville Fire Rescue station is now being built.
Back then, the land Lincoln Estates is built on was considered too swampy and flood prone by other developers, but Emmer proved them wrong, Edwards said.
“He talked to my mom and others in the neighborhood, and he was always very respectful and nice,” Edwards said. “He gave hope to a lot of people.”