When Dennis Foltz took the position as interim town manager for Oakland in 2009, his goal for the three-month assignment was to help the town take a fresh look at functions and organization that would benefit the municipality and its next full-time manager. He also vowed to assist in keeping the town functions operating smoothly.
Little did he know that he would remain in that position for nine years.
Foltz has effectively managed the growth that catapulted Oakland from a quiet town of 2,500 with no sewer system and few businesses to what it is now — a town on the edge of remarkable, but controlled, growth with close to 3,100 residents and the potential to redefine the way other municipalities handle their own growth.
“Mr. Dennis turned this small-town operation into a corporate entity,” Commissioner Joseph McMullen said. “He developed department heads, streamlined operations, set standards, improved trust from the community and the list goes on. (He) has positioned the town of Oakland for the future with his hard work and vision from the day he entered our doors.
“We are in a great place due to his dedication and expectation of excellence,” McMullen said. “Under Dennis’ leadership in Oakland, he has brought us into the present and prepared us well for the years to come,” Mayor Kathy Stark said. “I could not be more grateful for what he has done for this wonderful town that he loves as much as we, the residents, do.”
TAKING THE LEAD
Foltz, a Clermont resident, came out of retirement in 2009 to take the position in Oakland. Before retiring, he owned a consulting firm that specialized in regional, city and school planning and management services. In 2001-02, he was the principal transportation planner for the city of Ocoee.
When he took the interim position with Oakland, Foltz was already familiar with the town through his positions with Ocoee and Orange County Public Schools.
He also had served several years on the board of the Oakland Nature Preserve when a fellow board member suggested he temporarily assist Oakland. Town officials were impressed with Foltz and his work experience and asked him to stay for six months.
“I was doing it as a consultant because it was just temporary,” he said. “I said, ‘You let me know when you want me to leave.’ And they said, ‘No, you tell us when you want to leave.’ After a year they said, ‘Why don’t you just become an employee?’ … I stayed longer than six months.”
The town manager was faced with helping turn around a 120-year-old town in which many of its residents were accustomed to “the way it was,” he said. The financial outlook was dire, and his new staff asked when he was going to start making employee cuts.
“Financially, it was very weak,” Foltz said. “Organizationally, it was very disorganized. Infrastructure-wise, we were in a water moratorium, we didn’t have any more water in our system. They had started the expansion of the water system.
“There was a lot to fix,” he said.
The key, he said, was expanding the tax base, which meant bringing more commercial development into the town. But when a developer inquired about building a truck stop on West Colonial Drive, Foltz knew it was important to prepare the main highway for smart growth, which meant adding sanitary sewer. He, the staff and the town commission created the Gateway Corridor Overlay, which put restrictions on what could be built along West Colonial and Oakland Avenue.
The next step was to look at the feasibility of bringing sanitary sewer to the town so the appropriate commercial would follow.
“You have to lead with planning; that’s a daily mantra, you have to lead with planning,” he said. “If you don’t lead with context, (that’s like) just taking off on a trip without a map.”
A mobility study further defined Oakland’s character and determined needs.
“I’m very happy with where we’ve come with our planning,” Foltz said. “I think even in times where we didn’t have a lot of money, you have to invest. … You pay for planning up front.
“As decisions come up, you’ve got a context to make them in and, particularly on the design, as you go through that, you build community support and you inform,” he said. “The story of Oakland is going to be a model.”
To help fulfill this vision, the right staff had to be in place.
“There was no infrastructure, there was no planning or vision for the future,” he said. “Once you look at the visioning — how we’re going to get there — then you look internally at the organization.
“My philosophy as a manager is you can’t do it all yourself,” he said. “We finally have a front-line staff that I believe to be the heartbeat of the organization.”
He quoted the late Steve Jobs: “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
“Dennis has been so great to work for and to work with,” Town Clerk Kim Gay said. “He has helped me and others by recognizing our professionalism and allowing us to do our jobs. He has always valued us as a team and as individuals.”
“Dennis’ impact on Oakland has been profound here,” Stark said. “He could take all his experience and apply it to what needed to be done.”
This includes preparing for the future with an expanded water utility, developing a wastewater utility that involved an agreement with Clermont to provide services and obtaining funding from the state of Florida to build the infrastructure.
Foltz was instrumental in hiring professional staffing that has enabled well-run departments, including public works, planning and finance, as well as Oakland Avenue Charter School and the Oakland Police Department.
He has secured a number of grants to rehabilitate homes and grants to improve drainage throughout the town.
Foltz also assembled a group of local residents to advise him on projects based on their expertise, and this served him and the town well through the years, Stark said.
“I think Oakland is on a really good path,” Foltz said. “I don’t think there are things that I would have done differently.”
There is one task he was unable to complete, however, and that is the issue with Oakland’s ZIP code. Because of capacity restraints at Oakland’s post office, there are a number of residents who have to use the 34787 ZIP code, which is associated with Winter Garden, instead of 34760.
“It’s an identity thing, it’s a historic thing — but it’s a financial thing. … A lot of things are identified by the ZIP code. So when money gets distributed (through the state’s Communication Service Tax), it can get distributed based on ZIP code.”
Though he’s retiring, Foltz said he will be in Oakland often, visiting friends and getting updates on progress in the town.
“I came here too late in life,” Foltz, 78, said. “If I came here when I was 50 and (was now) in my 60s, I could be around to see the fruits of my labors. … It’s like, you have this Maserati and you fix it up and then you have to let someone else drive it.”
He said he will miss working with his staff and the Town Commission and continuing to improve the town.
“But I’ll be able to come over here and enjoy it, to have lunch and ride a bike,” he said. “I wish I were 10 years younger.”
His retirement is official Sept. 28, and then he and his wife, DeAnna Cree, will spend about three months in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they have a second home.
He hopes to do some more traveling, but then he admitted to wanting to tackle a project where he can use his knowledge, maybe do a little teaching or connect planners and managers and see what they can learn from each other.
“He was a true mentor and guide for my growth as a young commissioner,” McMullen said. “I will forever be grateful for his impact to the town of Oakland and my journey as a public servant.”
“Dennis is a visionary and has brought this town a long way during his time here,” Gay said. “He has been a positive impact on Oakland.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.