Recently retired, former Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado reflects on his five years as the city’s CEO, stewarding growth, restoring trust in the city and the positive strides the city has made in building a solid, customer-focused organization.
Delgado started his career with the city in 1997 as assistant director of the Lakeland Center, now called the RP Funding Center. He left that job to become assistant city manager in 2000, then deputy city manager. He was promoted to city manager in 2016, following Doug Thomas’ resignation.
“I never thought I would find myself in this position,” he said just before retirement. “I thought I would run a stadium or center or Madison Square Garden. It’s been 20 years. It’s been humbling and challenging, an incredible honor, to make things happen, even though I’m a small part of it.”
Mayor Bill Mutz praised Delgado for his leadership skills. “As city manager, Tony used his thorough knowledge and understanding, excellent listening skills, humor and winsomeness, the pursuit of fair decisions, and willingness to take appropriate risks to make Lakeland an increasingly better place to live. He can reflect proudly on those accomplishments.”
Mutz described Delgado’s departure as bittersweet. “Although we are excited, he’ll enter this new life chapter, we’ll miss his very effective leadership.”
He’s most proud of building an incredibly strong team full of expertise and knowledge that is second to none. “We have great public servants who cut the grass, who make sure the power is on. They love this community.”
Delgado gave much credit to city workers when asked about his top four accomplishments as city manager. He listed them as:
- Having an opportunity to build an incredibly strong, customer-centric group of professionals who are engaged in their jobs and the community. Part of the team was there, but he hired or promoted people like Police Chief Ruben Garcia and Fire Chief Doug Riley.
- Re-establishing public trust following sex and public records scandals that rocked the city and saw dozens of people quit or be fired. “We had our challenges, and I had to meet that head-on and re-engage with people like The Ledger and State Attorney’s Office and let them know we will do things the right way. It impacted how the public saw the city, but even internally. Employees were concerned about making mistakes. We had to tell them if they make a mistake while doing the right thing they won’t be criticized, we work on that every day.” Employees are also willing to take reasonable risks now, he said. “Every day someone comes in and says, ‘Why can’t we do this, or says they were talking to someone and they suggested this.’ “
- Emphasizing good growth, especially at the airport, and in the downtown commercial and housing corridors. The city and its business development director, Jason Willey, work with the Central Florida Development Council and the Lakeland Economic Development Council on community growth, resulting in the arrival of Amazon Air, and Catapult and Summit Consulting’s new buildings downtown. “We listened to developers to help make their opportunities easier without looking past rules and regulations. We made it easier to do business in Lakeland.”
- Being creative and using a public-private partnership to build a much-needed 824-space parking garage downtown. The Heritage Parking Garage on Lemon Street opened in February 2020.
The city also approved the development of a new hotel at the RP Funding Center. “This all happened because people saw Lakeland as a great place to do business,” he said.
And then the pandemic hit. “We were making great progress, undergoing a renaissance, seeing incredible projects happening,” he said. “People want to live and work here.”
The pandemic has slowed progress, but not halted it. Still, the new city manager will face budget and community challenges and will have to figure out how to balance the wants and needs of the community regarding funding, smart growth and services, Delgado said.
The city must ensure infrastructure is in place to attract new businesses and keep current ones here while understanding that costs money. “We don’t want to create burdens, we don’t want to raise taxes. We will need to be frugal and balanced, and find other options like public-private partnerships, fees for services and grants,” he said.
Lakeland is known for its quality of life, a great place to live and work with a variety of cultural, arts, sports, recreational and other available activities like spring training and the Polk Museum of Art. “Businesses small and large do well here during good to great economies,” he said.
He laments the pandemic, which hit after several big projects were approved like Bonnet Springs Park, which he likens to Central Park in New York City and Grant Park in Chicago. “We had such great momentum, seeing things come before us, things were going to be something special. … But other major businesses are on the horizon. The world just changed.”
Looking to fill Delgado’s position, the city hired an outside firm to collect resumes, which numbered more than 115. “It’s a very attractive position with economic development opportunities and a good quality of life,” he said.
Delgado has not been involved in finding his successor but knows that his deputy city manager, Shawn Sherrouse, has applied. Sherrouse, who has taken on different roles in the city, has the experience and would do a great job if selected, he said.
Sherrouse said he will miss Delgado’s leadership and friendship, “him not being here to come in and say good morning to me and catch up at the end of a weekend. He’s very genuine, very affable. I’m big on authentic leadership, and Tony’s leadership style fits that perfectly.”
He’s learned a lot working with Delgado and will use that knowledge as he moves forward in his own career, he said. He noted three things that are special about his boss:
- His ethical standards. “They are unblemished. When he took over, it was at a time when that was needed, not only for that local crisis, but since then, and he’s continued to lead by example to the community and the city.”
- His ability to quickly build relationships, which he called impressive. “He does it with such ease. It’s the compassionate type of person Tony is. I’ve watched him with members of the community, potential business partners and internal staff. I’ve watched him take meetings most would wonder why he was taking, and he does it out of genuine respect, concern and compassion for those individuals.”
- His focus on making the city customer-centric. “It’s a mantra he carried, and the organization caught on early on.”
As for Delgado, leaving is bittersweet. “There are wonderful people in the community. It makes me proud to be part of their team. I will miss the people I work with and the people I interact with.”
Life After Leaving
Now, he’s planning on seeing the world with his wife, who is also retired. They’ve laid out a long-term plan, with Ireland and Scotland on the list. They’d also like to visit Hawaii, where they’ve been separately but never together. Closer to home, he’d like to visit Savannah, Charleston and Durango.
But first, he’s going to visit family in and around Chicago, loved ones he hasn’t been able to see since the coronavirus started canceling most travel in March. “My parents are more mature, getting up there in years. We want to spend time with them.”
They’ll also spend time at their place in Longboat Key, where you might find Delgado checking on sea turtle nests as a volunteer for the Mote Marine Laboratory.