BROOKSVILLE — When Michael McHugh started work as interim director of Hernando County's business development office in June 2002, he planned to stay only about six months.
He ended up signing on as the full-time director.
When McHugh announced his resignation last week, his decision surprised some officials with whom he had worked; it also provided him an opportunity to look back on 11 years of accomplishments, including the addition of some 2,000 jobs in Hernando during his tenure.
"It's been an incredible journey,'' McHugh said.
He acknowledged that he had been thinking about doing something different for some time, and he said he was looking forward to a break.
Over the years, McHugh, 50, has worked closely with the county's airport because of the industrial, rail and corporate parks that surround it. He said he thought the timing of his resignation was good because a new airport manager, Kevin Daugherty, arrived recently and has hit the ground running.
Tourism is also humming along, especially with the recent opening of a new visitor center at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
In addition, the County Commission this month approved County Administrator Len Sossamon's strategic plan for the county, and a key element is to improve Hernando's economic viability.
"I think Len is trying to put more resources in place for economic development,'' McHugh said. "It might be time for some new ideas.''
He called himself a "dinosaur,'' saying that few people in his line of work stay very long.
McHugh came to the job from the mining industry. Unlike many others in the economic development field, he didn't have to learn about the business world. He did have to learn the ropes of government.
"I was certainly from a different recipe,'' he said.
McHugh said the job was a labor of love for him and noted that "we have accomplished a lot.''
In October, he introduced Gov. Rick Scott as Accuform Signs announced plans to build a new 300,000-square-foot manufacturing site at the airport, bringing with it 271 additional jobs.
He celebrated the opening of the airport's air traffic control tower last year and stood ready to begin the serious rebranding of the airport after the name was changed earlier this year to Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
Since then, McHugh has found himself caught in the middle of a series of controversies swirling around the airport, including discussions regarding unmanned drone aircraft being tested there, the purchase by the county of the old Brooksville Air Center site, the leasing of that property to Corporate Jet Solutions and the war of words between county officials and Aviation Authority Chairman Gary Schraut over control of airport operations.
In recent days, airport tenants have sued both Schraut and former airport manager Don Silvernell for defamation.
Some officials are not surprised by the timing of McHugh's departure.
"Gary is getting sued. Don is getting sued. Mike hasn't done anything wrong, but he's probably worried about being in the middle of that,'' said county Commissioner Nick Nicholson. "He probably feels now might be a good time to get out with all the controversies at the airport.''
McHugh might also have left because he saw the handwriting on the wall, said John Druzbick, a former county commissioner who previously served as the commission's economic development liaison.
Druzbick said that the commission has always identified economic development as a priority, but never properly funded it to provide the incentives needed to attract serious new business to the county.
"The county is losing an asset,'' he said of McHugh. "He worked really hard with his staff of one.''
Hernando County School Board Chairman Matt Foreman said losing McHugh will be a blow to the district's efforts to start offering adult technical education courses.
"Anytime you lose somebody as dedicated to this program as Mike is, you're going to feel the absence," Foreman said.
McHugh had been a huge proponent of the courses, and his efforts helped the district land a $1.5 million appropriation from the state for the program.
Assistant superintendent of teaching and learning Ken Pritz said he hopes McHugh's resignation won't adversely affect the fledgling program.
"I think we at least have a foundation at this point," Pritz said. "If we were a little further back, I would have been a lot more concerned than where we are now."
McHugh said he believes the adult technical education program will move forward, especially since Lori Romano, the new superintendent of schools, has experience in the field of adult education.
McHugh counts among his proudest moments both of this year's allocations from the state Legislature — one for the vocational education program and the other, also $1.5 million, for restoration of the historic Chinsegut Hill manor house, north of Brooksville.
Commission Chairman Dave Russell said McHugh has contributed a lot to the county.
"He will be missed,'' Russell said.
"I wish him well,'' said Commissioner Diane Rowden. "I think he's been a great ambassador for Hernando County.''
McHugh's current annual salary is $96,553.60. His cash-out for unused leave time will be about $22,525.
Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.