WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Wendy Dewhurst
With hearts fluttering to a drumbeat of exciting new beginnings and every item they owned, including a dog and a cat, jam-packed in their car, Cheri Coryea and her husband motored from Huntsville, Alabama, to Bradenton in 1989 and soared over the Sunshine Skyway for the very first time. Golden sunrays illuminated their welcoming path and sparkled like diamonds in the water. Coryea looked to her right and caught a view mimicking iconic Florida postcards: dolphins leaping and playing in the rolling waves. “I thought, oh my, I’m going to live here?” said Coryea with her blue eyes widening as if experiencing the sight for the first time again. “I was so taken aback at this sight. It was amazing.”
Coryea, an Indiana native, may have fallen madly in love with her new community at first sight, but her community also fell in love with her. After 30 years of working for Manatee County, including 28 in management, and a career blooming with stunning accolades, Coryea carved out a new role March 1 when County Commissioners unanimously confirmed her as acting County Administrator to the thunder of two standing ovations. Recalling that monumental moment, emotion and tears pooled in her eyes. “I was scared, emboldened, proud,” said Coryea, who has served as interim County Administrator since 2017. “I didn’t want to let anyone down because we’re all in this together. The encouragement from everyone is driving me forward. I can’t imagine being new to this community and this position. I know these people. I know what to expect and what not to expect, which is important in a county growing so rapidly.”
Overwhelming support, including from Ed Hunzeker who retired as County Administer in February, has shined a beacon of light on Coryea, who serves as the first female in this position. “I couldn’t be happier with the decision,” Hunzeker said in a county statement. “She has witnessed how we managed the county, and she will manage with her style… and keep things moving. There will be a seamless transition and we’ve worked diligently to make it happen.” After the applause quieted at the Commission meeting in February, Coryea reached back out with supportive words to the board. “(Commissioners) have a tough job to do with difficult decisions to make every day for the 388,000 who live here,” Coryea said. “I’m here to make the leadership transition the easiest part you have to do and to move things forward. I’m here to earn the respect and trust of this board and this community.”
Each morning, Coryea drives into work from Parrish to hit the ground running. While her office boasts family pictures, a white orchid blooming in the sill of picturesque windows that coax the Manatee River inside, a unicorn mug filled with pens and a tempting bowl of chocolates on a desk, Coryea isn’t in there for long. You’ll often find her buzzing around the county building -laptop in hand – dashing from executive meetings and overseeing operations to leveling hot button items and listening to constituents. “I’m results driven – that’s my goal and has been for many years,” said Coryea who received the 2012 Tampa Bay Business Journal Business Woman of the Year (government category) award. “When you work for the people, you want to do a good job.”
Rolling into Bradenton for that first time in 1989, Coryea and her husband rented a room at the Park Inn while hunting for a home. The charm of the county and smiling, welcoming people, lured the young couple to nourish roots here and never leave. In those initial days, she nearly accepted a position for Sarasota County, but the telephone rang the next morning. Manatee County wanted her. “Manatee County is unique,” said Coryea. “I’m from a small town where people help each other. That’s what this place is. It’s where everyone rolls up their sleeves to work together, and I wanted to be a part of this community.”
The first chapter of her role in Manatee County will always read as a special beginning for Coryea. She helped create and mold the first Children Services Advisory Board and develop the Children’s Services Fund from its inception in 1991 and grow it to a current annual budget of $15 million. “This was amazing because we looked at over 100 applicants,” said Coryea who raised two daughters in this community and her first one was born during this time. “They all wanted to be a part of this. The formation of CSAB will always be special.”
As her daughters grew, they often would tackle homework on the sidelines of CSAB meetings, pausing to listen and absorb the world of service and philanthropy. As a young mom, Coryea felt lucky to tap into so many organizations serving children. “I felt like I had a whole set of experts to consult with at my fingertips,” said Coryea. “When my daughters were in middle school, someone told me to let your kids know you made mistakes. Let them know how you learned from them. This really stuck with me and helped start a lot of conversations with my teenagers.”
Coryea’s career journey unfolds like an honored storybook tale of service. Not only did she oversee the two Community Redevelopment Area budgets of $2.5 million annually, but she also pioneered the creation of the Southwest Tax Increment Financing District in 2014.
She exudes positive energy, and her drive to refine, create, and problem solve leaps from the long and winding list of the many key county initiatives she has helped develop that will leave anyone who tries to rattle them off breathless. These include: creation of the Economic Development Incentive Program, Health Care for the medically needy, Children’s Services Tax, Manatee Millennial Movement, Community Development Block Grant, Rubonia Community Center renovations, and the Norma Lloyd Park Development.
Focusing on strengthening community relationships with more than 150 not-for-profit agencies, hospitals and intergovernmental organizations, Coryea as Neighborhood Services Director, managed an annual budget of over $44 million including federal, state, and local grants. “Cheri is an amazing individual,” said former County Commissioner and current Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie at the confirmation meeting. “You’re not going to find anyone any better. She’s moved up from the ranks, and she knows all the players. She will do an excellent job. Not a single person who has worked with her can name something she’s failed at. You give her a job, and she nails it with dignity, with honor, and with heart.”
When Coryea is not advocating for her community, she finds peace and relaxation heading outdoors. She often likes to work in her barn where she jokes she has a 1200-pound son – her horse. Cardinals, bluebirds, and woodpeckers swirl above her and swoop down to tweet hellos while she gardens. Time away from the office usually involves indulging in trips to visit family still living up north. However, she’s quick to add: “I also love my work family. We rely on each other a lot.”
While Coryea shares excitement for the future, she also acknowledges challenges loom ahead, including the chance her year-long position may not transform into a permanent one. Coryea does not hold a bachelor’s degree, a requirement for County Administrator. At 60, she has enrolled in college and is pursing a degree while listening to the supportive chants from family and friends.“That’s my Sunday,” Coryea said with a wide smile. “I work on my degree then. I value education, and it’s always been on my important list.”
After crossing into Bradenton 30 years ago, Coryea and her husband pulled over on the south-side of the bridge, awestruck, to stare and marvel at their new home. “Then I realized I still had to go to work,” Coryea chuckled.
Her supporters are so thankful she did.