CLAY COUNTY – Following a five-month search, Howard Wanamaker was tabbed to replace Stephanie Koupelousos, who left to become Gov. Ron DeSantis’ director of legislative affairs.
A 26-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, Wanamaker ran Naval Air Station Jacksonville as commanding officer for three years and has worked for NATO, leading its Human Factors and Cognitive Science Section in the Technology and Human Factors Branch. The past three years he’s been the Chief Strategy Officer and Human Resources Director for Hanania Automotive.
Wanamaker said he was drawn to the position because of a recent Hanania expansion in the county and his service in Clay. He’s on the Clay Chamber of Commerce, YMCA and Habitat for Humanity boards.
“Clay was pulling me in a different way. It was that close-knit feel, with the people,” Wanamaker said. “It was just the projects and what we were doing. I felt like competing for this opportunity.”
County commissioners voted 3-2 to enter negotiations with Wanamaker in May. While Commissioners Gavin Rollins, Diane Hutchings and Gayward Hendry went with Wanamaker, Mike Cella and Wayne Bolla opted for Craig Coffey, the former Flagler County manager of 12 years.
Cella and Bolla showed support for Wanamaker, who previously hadn’t held a city or county job. They both said there wasn’t a wrong choice between Wanamaker and Coffey.
“This is a critical time in the county’s future and the board believes Mr. Wanamaker is the person that can guide us as our community experiences the rapid commercial and residential growth we are expecting,” Cella said in May.
On Tuesday, Wanamaker’s contract was approved 4-0. His start date in June 18 and his annual base salary is $190,000.
Wanamaker said his military and business experience was dynamic and would help in his new job. Bases function like small towns, and at NAS JAX it was no different. Since Wanamaker was selected for command, he said he had his eyes on managing a city of county in the future.
“I thought [NAS JAX] is a small town. The only thing NAS Jacksonville did not provide is electric,” Wanamaker said. “Everything else was there, from fire safety to emergency management to security to wastewater treatment. It has what any other city would have. Obviously, I’m going to be exposed to a lot of new things in the transition, but I’m a quick learner.”
NATO displayed to Wanamaker a human factor side that also led him on the path to be county manager, he said. Instead of deployments and battle rhythms, it was working with 28 nations to achieve a common goal.
“I learned a lot from that,” Wanamaker said. “It kind of opened my eyes to different areas like technology, human factor ergonomics, mobile computing and cyber defense.”
Wanamaker’s first 90 days won’t differ from most new city or county managers: it’s about meeting department heads and staff and developing a routine. Then he’ll look at each department’s challenges, opportunities and goals.
In line with the will of the commissioners, he said one of his biggest hurdles was handling Clay’s rapid growth, attracting new businesses with high-paying jobs and improving infrastructure.
“My No.1 goal, besides safety and security for all residents of Clay County, would be making Clay County the best in the state of Florida, whatever metric somebody wants to measure that by,” Wanamaker said.