Polk County executive not seeking re-election

By LARRY C. BOWERS
Posted 1/14/18

Polk County Executive, after a total of 28 years in office, has announced he will not seek re-election this year. He emphasized in a Friday interview that he is not completely retiring, but …

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Polk County executive not seeking re-election

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Polk County Executive, after a total of 28 years in office, has announced he will not seek re-election this year. 

He emphasized in a Friday interview that he is not completely retiring, but moving out of the executive's office. Reportedly, five people have already obtained qualifying petitions to run for the county's top office.

Firestone said he has some personal projects that should tie him up for awhile, he then plans to explore other opportunities, and maybe have a little fun!

He said he does enjoy the outdoors and camping, and agreed Polk County is an ideal location for such pursuits.

The county executive has served seven terms, the first five consecutively. He was first elected in 1986. The four years prior he served on the Polk County Commission.

Firestone was born and raised in Polk County, graduating from Polk County High School in 1966. 

He attended Cleveland State Community College for a couple of semesters, before transferring to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where he obtained his degree in education.

He used the teaching certificate for only a year, before going into construction for 16 years. He was then in real estate, prior to first being elected county executive.

Firestone headed Polk County's government, his first and second terms, during a very tumultuous time. Mid-way of his first term was when the Copperhill mining companies decided to close down.

He said this was disastrous to Polk County and its financial balance. "Those industries paid 51 percent of our property taxes," said Firestone.

He said the county's financial picture was bleak for four consecutive years. The county, at that time, had the highest unemployment rate in the state at 14 percent. Today's rate is 3.5 to 3.8 percent.

Firestone said he looked at other communities across the country, where mines closed down, and several of those became ghost towns.

"But, we restuctured some things and we recovered," Firestone said. He added  the impact of the mines closing down is still being felt today, with the loss of that local employment base.

Firestone pointed out many employment opportunities for Benton and Polk County residents are now outside the county, and many across state lines. Some are employed in North Georgia, and the Casino in Murphy, N.C., has been a benefit.

He said there has been a significant cultural change in recent years for Polk County, with a number of people moving into the area from outside the state and even from foreign countries.

Much of this has come from the changes after the mines closed, when the county began to concentrate on other opportunities, such as tourism.

He said the 1996 Olympics, held at the Rafting and Cultural Center on the Ocoee, was a huge factor in bringing world-wide exposure to the small, rural county. That exposure fueled an influx of new residents.

A big support for Firestone along the way was wife, Karen, who he met about the time he entered county politics. It is ironic that her father, Charles Wilkins, was Monroe County executive at the time, and his time in office  coincided with his son-in-law for one term.

A friend introduced Hoyt to Karen, they went on a blind date, and dated for about a year before marriage. They have two daughters, Amanda Firestone of Athens, and Brooke Stevison of Cleveland. Karen is the office manager of Blue Ridge Pulmonary in Cleveland.

Firestone had some advice for his successor, saying they should be frugal financially, keep up the infrastructure, and look at opportunities for the county such as technology (broadband), and the major transportation networks.

He said there is an economic opportunity coming soon in Murray County, Ga., just six or seven miles from the Polk County border.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is planning to open an Inland Port, which will be a distribution center. Storage units will be coming from the coast by rail, and then out of the port by truck.

Firestone said there probably won't be that many employment opportunities at the Inland Port, but there will be several companies and organizations involved in the overall project.

In closing, Firestone said there is one major issue the new county executive will have to learn.

"They 're going to have to adapt to work with criticism," he said. "This office is the clearing house for everything."


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