OLDSMAR — Bruce Haddock recalls how desolate Oldsmar seemed when he drove through town three decades ago.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'There really is nothing here,' " said Haddock, who was then Gulfport's finance director.
A few years later, when he was hired as city manager of Oldsmar with its population of about 6,000, some people asked him, "Why are you moving there?"
"In some circles, Oldsmar was thought of as the red-headed stepchild of Pinellas County," said Haddock, 60.
But during Haddock's tenure there, the city's population has doubled, bringing traffic, upscale subdivisions and plenty of restaurants. And Haddock, celebrating his 25th year as Oldsmar manager, is now one of Florida's longest-serving managers.
Remaining city manager in one place for more than 20 years "is pretty unusual in Florida," according to Lynn Tipton, executive director of the Florida City and County Management Association.
The International City/County Management Association says that the national average for city and county managers is a little over seven years, she said. In Florida, she said, that average is just under seven. One key reason is that commissions and councils, which have the power to hire and fire managers, turn over relatively frequently.
Oldsmar Mayor Jim Ronecker, who has been serving on the City Council since 2003, thinks Haddock's longevity may be linked to his professionalism, fiscal skills and ability to gauge the city's future needs.
One example, he said, is the city's $20 million water treatment plant, which broke ground last year. It will enable the city to produce its own drinking water rather than having to buy it.
"That was something 10 years in the making," Ronecker said. "Now the residents of Oldsmar are going to be able to control their own destiny as far as the (water) rates go."
Haddock, who has worked in local government since 1974, came to Oldsmar from Gulfport after he was fired as manager there. That decision was followed by a public outcry from residents who accused Gulfport council members of violating Florida's Sunshine Law.
When Haddock interviewed for the job in Oldsmar, he told officials he wasn't planning to hop around from one place to another. He also told them, "I don't think I'll be here for 20 years."
Oldsmar switched from a strong mayor form of government to a council-manager form in the early 1980s, hiring its first city manager in 1981. When Haddock was hired in 1986, he was Oldsmar's fifth manager in five years.
"We'd been through a lot of city managers in a short period of time," recalled fire Chief Scott McGuff, who was named chief a couple of years after Haddock came to the city.
McGuff thought Haddock seemed a bit serious and straight-laced early on, he said.
"I assume he always had a sense of humor," joked McGuff, but it was hard to tell back then, he said.
"I think he probably intimidated a lot of people that way," McGuff said. "At the same time, he's a pretty sharp cookie. You could see immediately changes in how the city operated and what the expectations were for employees. I think he brought a sense of direction to the city."
Haddock did have a few rough patches. A little over a year after he was hired, he ran into criticism over a termination settlement with a city employee. A couple of years later, he received mixed reviews from the council, some calling him tough or uncommunicative. And in 1994, council members considered firing him over his handling of a controversial power line project.
Haddock applied to work elsewhere a couple of times. But he settled into Oldsmar and found it was a good place to work and raise a family, he said.
"After a while, it really becomes home and you feel like you're part of the community," Haddock said.
One of his first assignments was to move City Hall, which was in a historic bank building on State Street.
"The building was falling down around us," Haddock said, laughing as he recalled the "ping-ping" sound during council meetings. The roof leaked so bad that staffers set out trash cans to catch the rainwater.
Soon, Haddock oversaw a multimillion-dollar expansion of the city's aging sewer plant, a project ordered by state environmental regulators before he was hired.
Council member Jerry Beverland, who wasn't serving on the council then, said Haddock helped the city flourish by rebuilding the system and getting it up to regulatory standards.
"He had to put the plant back into its original capacity to meet all of the regulations," Beverland said. "It was a hard job to do."
When Haddock was hired, his annual salary was about $42,500. He now makes around $133,000. Back then, roads in some parts of town were still unpaved. And not much was going on in city government, either.
The city, which now has about 140 workers, had about 80 employees then. The leisure services department had two employees, who worked at Canal Park, Haddock recalled. And shortly after he started, Haddock hired the city's first library director.
Since then, Oldsmar has built a City Hall, fire station and municipal services building. And in recent years, it built a library and the Cypress Forest Recreation Center.
Beverland said Haddock has been a consistent force in the city as councils came and went.
"We've had some strong councils. We've had some weak councils," Beverland said. "The main thread is the city manager through the past 25 years."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155.