As County Manager Jim Freeman prepares to retire, he quietly reflects on his accomplishments — rather, his team’s accomplishments; the future of Polk County; and his own plans, post-retirement.
He says other people say he will be remembered for guiding the county through the Great Recession of 2008. “It was challenging,” Freeman said. “It took a lot of creativity and we had to make a lot of difficult decisions on reductions, expenditures, staffing levels. We got through it as well as we could given the loss of revenue.” A positive person by nature, he’d rather look on the bright side in reflecting on what he’s accomplished with the county’s 2,000-plus employees and various partners.
Freeman began working for the county in 1989 as its IT director. He also served as administrative services director and deputy county manager until he was appointed county manager in 2010. The County Commission chose Bill Beasley, the assistant county manager over infrastructure, to be his replacement.
“Jim is a consummate gentleman in every sense of the word,” said County Commission Chairman George Lindsey. “As an administrator, he never boxed elected officials into a corner. He clearly knows the difference between policy and management.”
Lindsey admired the way Freeman, whom he called a consensus builder, always gave county commissioners several options, along with consequences, he said. “That’s all an elected official can reasonably expect, not to be forced to make a decision they aren’t comfortable with and don’t really endorse.”
Todd Dantzler, who was one of the five commissioners who promoted Freeman, agreed with Lindsey, saying Freeman “supported our decisions whether he agreed with them or not. … He gave everything he had and a little bit more. He should be proud of his service to Polk County.”
Consensus Builder, Teacher, Mentor
The words those interviewed used to describe Freeman often overlapped, but always started with humble. They continued with leader, team builder, dedicated, decisive and so many more.
Dantzler said Freeman offered him perspective. “He gave me the ability to let me make mistakes, but not big ones. He helped me learn from the mistakes I made. He taught me humility.”
He praised Freeman for “the stability he brought to our budget and the leadership and guidance he used for his employees, and his relationship with commissioners.”
Many of those who forged relationships with Freeman during his tenure as county manager shared their thoughts at his last County Commission meeting on July 16. “It was very moving and very heartfelt. The institutional knowledge that Jim possesses will be sorely missed. I feel truly blessed that Jim was my manager.”
State Rep. Melony Bell, who also was on the County Commission when Freeman was selected as county manager, said Freeman brought infrastructure and tourism to Polk County. “He is well known for making the hard decisions that benefited our county.”
“He is a man with high integrity, a sincere work ethic and dedicated community involvement,” Bell said. “He was kind to all his employees and gave them opportunities to flourish and better themselves. Polk County was fortunate to have his leadership skills as head of the administrative branch. We will deeply miss his wisdom, his humor and his dedication.”
A generally positive person, Freeman noted some of the county’s accomplishments during his tenure:
- The revamping of the economic development program, which changed from a public-sector organization to the private Central Florida Development Council, which the county helps fund.
“Jim had the courage to let it go private,” Dantzler said. “A lot of city/county managers are graded by what they do with economic development. A lot of those people want to keep it under their thumb. He had the courage to let the private sector take it over. The private sector has risen to that occasion. That was huge for him to be able to give up control of economic development, but stay involved and still be the most significant contributor.”
Sean Malott, President and CEO of the Central Florida Development Council stated, “Jim pioneered a new organization structure for economic prosperity in Polk County. We are grateful for his pro-business leadership to help guide and grow an economy based on high-skill, high-wage sustainable businesses. Through Jim’s leadership, the CFDC has been able to successfully promote Polk County as Florida’s best place for business.” Sean adds that, “Jim’s humble leadership style has been an inspiration to him personally.”
Lindsey said he’s been pleased with the transition from public to private. “It re-energized it, and there’s a lot more private-sector involvement and ownership of it. We are seeing good outcomes.” Lindsey said this was Freeman’s “single largest major endeavor. Structuring it for public/private partnership was absolutely the right thing to do.”
- Creation of the Polk Regional Water Cooperative with city partners. “I was skeptical at first,” he said. “It was a long road but we finished it. I wasn’t in the manager position in the early days, but it came to fruition during my tenure. We worked with city managers and all stakeholders to ensure the future of water in the county, which is central.”
- Investment in Polk County Fire Rescue following major increases in the workload during the Great Recession without additional staff. “I’m pleased with the County Commission’s commitment in the last 4-5 years to put major investment in Fire Rescue. There will be a big difference to first responders over the long haul. I’m leaving it better than it was at the beginning; a lot of that is the economy.”
Bell said Freeman’s legacy will include those things and more.
“Jim Freeman was a great leader,” she said. “His legacy brings not only the east and west side of the county to the table, but all four regions, including the north and south. I represented District 2, which is the rural areas of Polk County, and Mr. Freeman truly cared about making sure our needs were met.”
Speaking specifically about today’s business climate and economic development compared to 10-20 years ago, Freeman said the county has been able to continue a decades-long project to diversity the economy here.
“Historically, we were focused on very important industries. A downturn in one was devastating on Polk County’s economy and job base,” he said. “With a systematic process of diversifying the job base in the county, we’ve made progress in the average wage, which is extremely important.”
The explosion in logistics and e-commerce, especially in the Northeast part of the county, where the likes of Walmart, FedEx and Amazon have built facilities, brings primary jobs, not just retail, he said.
Partnerships with cities are solid, Freeman said, allowing collaboration, especially in the area around Florida Polytechnic University, which he called a “major jewel.”
“We are starting to get a plan around Florida Poly and SunTrax,” he said. “We are using Florida Poly as a stimulus for R&D type jobs, higher wage jobs.”
He also praised the county’s colleges and universities: “Polk County is really blessed with quality higher-education facilities.”
Taking advantage of its assets — being located in the center of the state, with most major roads rolling through the county — “we are well positioned for the future to continue the progress that’s been made,” Freeman said.
Freeman said three things are critical for Polk County in the future:
- With long-term population projections pushing Polk County from 700,000 to nearly 1 million residents, “a lot of infrastructure has to be built, especially in the eastern part of the county, including Winter Haven,” he said. The county, state and federal government has done all they can do to U.S. 27, meaning other options will have to be pursued. Beasley will have to make sure the Central Polk Parkway stays on track, he said.
- Beyond roads, the county will have to come up with money to maintain its quality of life, which is going to be a challenge, Freeman said.
- The Regional Water Cooperative will also need money to begin funding its top one or two projects. “Big decisions will need to be made,” he said.
- And the county should continue its investment in Fire Rescue.
Like Freeman, Beasley came up through the ranks. In fact, they held the same job overseeing infrastructure before assuming the county manager position. Freeman said Beasley will have to transition from being a day-to-day manager to looking long term.
“Make the right decisions and investments for the long haul. Make sure you don’t bog down with day-to-day tactical type issues that come up,” Freeman said. “Focus on stakeholder relations and the long term, and strategies for things that will be critical for the long range, like population growth, the environment. Get it all put together so the County Commission can make policy decisions, then make sure you get it implemented.”
Beasley, 63, said he’s learned a lot from Freeman in the 13-plus years they worked together.
“He has outwardly exemplified the highest ideals and integrity in both his personal life and commitment to public service, and he’s done this consistently for the past 30 years while serving the citizens of Polk County,” Beasley said. “In doing so, Jim has gained the admiration, respect and confidence of his many coworkers, various elected officials and, most importantly, the many citizens who call Polk County their home. It is my goal to outwardly emulate the ideals and ethical standards that he has set. Jim would insist on nothing less. I love him like a brother. It’s my honor and privilege to follow in his shoes.”
As Freeman prepares for a long road trip — partly vacation, partly family visits — and more time with his wife, Lindsey looks to a future with a new man at the helm.
Dantzler and Lindsey said Freeman and Beasley have different demeanors and approaches, but they are both results oriented.
“Bill will follow in Jim’s footsteps in being that consensus builder and giving elected officials the choices to make,” Lindsey said.