DAVENPORT – When Ernie W. Caldwell became the youngest commissioner in Polk County history in 1978, as age 29, he had, recalled Polk County Manager Jim Freeman, a very long term vision for his home region.
“It’s hard to believe Ernie has been off the commission for about 21 years,” Freeman said. “What a fine board of county commissioners we had back in those days. They left their mark on the county because of their vision of what Polk County could be.”
It was Caldwell who worked tirelessly to bring jobs and new business to Polk County, noted former Commissioner Neil Combee.
“He was such an advocate for his district on the east side of the county in District 4,” Combee said. “Beyond that, Ernie was a great advocate for Polk County, who would go anywhere – to Miami, Tallahassee, anywhere. He would represent the entire county and do it well.
“And,” Combee added, “he was as comfortable here talking with a rancher or a farmer as he was with a Wall Street banker.”
The dedication and commitment that Ernest “Ernie” Wayne Caldwell showed for Polk County was rewarded today with the official opening of the Ernie Caldwell Boulevard, the new roadway that helps connect U.S. 27 to the busy Posner Park shopping plaza and County Road 54.
There are still signs here of Northeast Polk County’s rural past – including a vast stretch of empty space in-between the new roadway and Posner Park in the distance, and a reminder that Caldwell was known as a fighter in protecting the county’s agricultural and environmental lands.
Caldwell also worked for the county as a planner in the 1970s, and later became executive director of the Central Florida Regional Planning Council. On Dec. 15, 2004, Polk County commissioners voted unanimously to name the east-west connector Ernie Caldwell Boulevard after the commissioner who had died in November 2009.
“This is a great, great honor for me,” said his widow, Kathy Caldwell. “In June of 2009, we were here and Ernie was on stage here for the groundbreaking.”
Ernie Caldwell was a man who had a deep, abiding love for his home and family, said his friend Alicia Hughes, the children’s pastor of the Caldwell family’s church, Still Water Christian Life Center in Haines City.
Hughes noted his often larger-than-life persona as a public figure and respected political leader, saying “Growing up, Mr. Caldwell was like Mr. (Ronald) Reagan to me. When I would see him, I’d say ‘Ohhh.’ He made great decisions for my life and his family’s life. I just want to say I miss him, but I know he’s in Heaven.“
There was a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning for the new roadway, bringing together public county government leaders, the general public, and the Caldwell family. Polk County Commissioner Todd Dantzler noted that in addition to celebrating a roadway that will make life easier for area motorists and business owners, it was an opportunity to “remember our longtime friend Ernie Caldwell, who loved Polk County.”
Sam Johnson, chairman of the Polk County Board of Commissioners, agreed, saying “I can relate to him as a commissioner and know a lot of times he went home with burdens on shoulders, but we can be very proud of his accomplishments.”
Freeman noted that he worked often with Caldwell before the commissioner retired from the board in 1990.
“It was a great pleasure to know Ernie,” Freeman said. “I worked with him after he left the commission on various development projects, and he was always a gentleman and always someone you could solve problems with.”
Michael Wadley, chairman of the North Ridge Community Redevelopment Agency’s board of directors, also pointed out that Caldwell had a skill for bringing in more businesses and jobs while still finding ways to protect the wetlands and agricultural lands that made Polk County what it was.
“He had a talent for balancing growth on the one hand with maintaining the quality of the land here in Polk County,” Wadley said.
Combee recalled working with Caldwell, who was instrumental in creating the county’s first wetlands ordinance, limiting the amount of development that could occur on wetlands-designated areas.
He also served on the board of directors for Audubon Florida and the Future Farmers of American Foundation.
“It was an honor to know Ernie,” Combee said. “I served with him on the commission for two years. Ernie loved the old cowboy ways, and that had a lot to do with our friendship and what we had in common.”
Moments before cutting the ribbon that officially opened the new roadway, Kathy Caldwell said her husband would have been so proud of this project.
“I love you and I miss you, Ernie,” she said.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.