Builder brings community vibe to neighborhood, fosters entrepreneurs through organization
Traveling the world, Robert V. (Bob) Coolman has uncovered a key component of community: a front porch.
“In Sierra Leone, the mud huts have porches. I was always wanting to know why,” he said. “The bishop of the Methodist Church said: It just makes sense. We don’t live in our houses. We just sleep there. We live on the porch. When the rain is coming down buckets, we can still visit with neighbors. When it’s hot, we can visit with neighbors from the shade of the porches. Porches make for good neighborhoods.”
This component of how people come together in a community is at the forefront of Coolman Communities’ mission to create strong neighborhoods and build family homes.
“In most modern subdivisions, where the garage sticks out on front of the house, there is very little sense of neighborhood. We try to figure out how to reduce garage dominance, how to slow traffic down, and create neighborhood play spaces,” he said. “How do we apply these … the goal is to create the kind of neighborhood that works for people … to create good places for people to live and raise their families.”
The business was launched by Robert’s parents, Robert B. and Florence Coolman, when they began developing land in Valparaiso in the late 1950s. Bob began building homes in 1972 after returning from military duty in Southeast Asia and finishing his education in civil engineering at Purdue Northwest.
“I served a couple of tours in Vietnam and loved navigation. The thing you can do in the civilian world that is similar to navigation is civil engineering,” he said. “I was in civil engineering at Purdue North Central full time, and working for a local builder framing houses. I showed up for work one morning and my boss told me we had to change course – and I’d have to finish the house we were working on … all of a sudden I was in the home-building business.”
Bob has had a hand in more than 1,500 single-family and multi-family homes in and around Valparaiso. He has helped develop many region neighborhoods, including Valparaiso-based communities: Heritage Valley, Aberdeen, Keystone Commons, Essex Park, North Hampstead, Fairfield Greens, The Prairie, Bridgewater Estates – and now Pepper Ridge and St. Paul Square.
Today, Bob is still working 50+ hours a week, on the development side of the business, having turned the construction side over to his employees.
“It is a great career and has been fulfilling in all kinds of ways,” he said. “We have always operated in some unusual ways to survive. We approach things from a problem-solving perspective and try to figure out where there is a need in the marketplace that isn’t being addressed. If we can figure out a way to address that need, we can own that segment of the market.”
He finds inspiration for new ideas wherever he goes – a process that drives his family “nuts.” Back in the 1980s when he met his wife, Sandy, her St. Louis condo spurred the building of condos in Valparaiso.
“I walked around her condo and knew there was a market for this kind of condo in Valpo,” he said. “There was a need in the marketplace for single women who wanted to own their own home. That was a big deal - to own something relatively maintenance-free that was affordable.”
Bob has been involved in community leadership for years. He has been at the helm of Operation Classroom, a United Methodist mission program, with his wife since 2012. The non-profit has worked together with the United Methodist Churches of Liberia and Sierra Leone to enhance the secondary education experience for youth.
“In a tribal culture, all decisions are made from the top down, and there is no real entrepreneurial perspective. We’re trying to improve secondary education and figure out how to put the country to work,” he said. “The ‘Enterprise Academy’ is intended to start working with kids at a young enough age to shift paradigms - to think differently - to become entrepreneurs.
“The intent is to do more than just provide an education. It’s intended to provide them with tools in marketing, accounting, business management, ethics and entrepreneurism. And equip them with real, usable skills.”
Coolman Communities, Inc.
359 S. Franklin St., Valparaiso