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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Sep. 20, 200112:00 PM EST

Ex-fighter pilot still flying high

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by: Bill Johnson

In 1973, the Vietnam War was winding down and Jerry Agresti was trying to figure out what life would be like after the Navy. This was no small feat because flying fighter jets in combat is somewhat of a hard act to follow.

The path for such aviators usually leads to places like United Airlines, where pilots such as Agresti cash in their experience and government training for six-figure paychecks, ferrying businessmen from meeting to meeting in the winged buses that crisscross our nation’s skies.

Agresti took a long look down that road — one which many of his colleagues were taking — and what he saw, he said, was a profession that would lead him from one cockpit to another until the day he retired. Very little change. Very little challenge. Just money — and that turned out not to be enough.

Today, the Boston native is one of the major architects of what has become the fast-growing city of Orange Park.

And his wallet isn’t really hurting from that decision he made those 28 years ago. But, more importantly, neither is his psyche.

“I was a fighter pilot and I loved it,” said the veteran of 76 combat missions and 400 aircraft carrier landings. “I just loved flying fighters. I loved flying upside-down and backwards and fighting two-on-one and just doing all the things that fighter pilots do. I thought long and hard before I got out of the Navy about what I wanted to do. Airline pilot was on the list because it paid about triple what I was making in the Navy as a pilot. And then I thought, OK, let me see this. Let’s check this life out. You’re in town three days, out of town three days, in town three days, out of town three days. And really, you know, it wasn’t considered flying. You’re just kind of driving the bus. You never get to go upside down or backwards. And, that would be all right, initially, but after 10 or 15 or 20 years, it’s still the same life. You don’t ever really progress to anything. All the way to 60, I just couldn’t see myself doing that.”

So airline pilot became plan B.

“I said, Well, let me go try my hand at my own business, and if it works, great. And, if it doesn’t, I’ll go join the airlines.”

Well, after two years, it didn’t work. But Agresti wasn’t ready to jump back in the cockpit just yet.

“I came out and did really well the first couple of years — that was in 1973 and 1974. I built a few houses and sold them almost immediately, and I thought, God, this is not that hard.”

Then came the recession of 1975 and 1976, “and everything I made in the previous few years got sucked down the drain.”

But, before dialing up Delta, Agresti figured it was worth just one more shot. Sure, he didn’t have any money, he said, but he didn’t have any money when he started, either. What he did have, however, was knowledge and experience. Experience in building houses and the knowledge that it can all be gone in the blink of an eye if you don’t keep track of the bigger picture.

“That’s when I learned about the economy and that you have to keep track of it,” he said recently from the offices of Developers Three Inc. “Fortunately, I sold all the inventory just in time from keeping from having to hang it up.”

This time, instead of building single-family houses — 20 of which he was stuck with when the recession hit — he decided it would be wiser to build something that had more options: multifamily dwellings.

“The thing that really hurt me was that I had like 20 houses in inventory when the recession hit,” he said. “You couldn’t give them away, and that just drained all my cash. I thought, I need to build something I can rent out, so if it doesn’t sell I can at least get some cash flow out of it.”

From then on, Agresti was grounded. Well-grounded.

A five-acre duplex and triplex project called Meadowbrook sold easily to investors, even through the small recession in 1982. Since, he’s built and sold 67 fourplexes, an entire apartment community called Four Winds, the Bluff House Apartments, the Hilltop Club and some office buildings, which he still owns.

“I just kept working at it,” he said. “I was trained that if you have something to do, just keep doing it. Just keep plugging away at it. As long as you keep working, it will all work out. So, I didn’t worry about the money. I just kept building a good product and what I thought would sell, and, naturally, the money followed.”

He’s never second-guessed his airlines decision.

“Actually, I have a lot of friends that went with the airlines and I see them now just getting to retirement age — mandatory retirement age for the airlines is 60 — so at 60, I see them kind of winding their careers down and saying ‘I’m too old to start a new career and I’m not ready to just quit.’ So, they’re kind of floundering. It’s something I don’t have to face. I’ve got a very interesting life right now.”

And, while part of that is running a very successful business, a growing and even more satisfying part is having the time to put back into his community. In fact, he said, for the last 20 years probably half of his time is spent on community service.

“It’s just fascinating to me,” said Agresti. “I just love it. And it actually, without ever thinking about it, gets you involved and you always know what’s going on. I’ve often had people say, ‘How do you always know what’s going on in the county?’ Well, go to 12 meetings a week and you’ll know.”

The two things he’s most proud about his public life is helping Clay County tame its utilities and helping the region tame its burgeoning welfare through the federal WorkSource program.

Agresti was actually the founding chairman of the Clay County Utility Authority when it came into existence 10 years ago and began purchasing all the private utilities within the county’s borders. He said citizens had to fight to create an independent authority “so the money collected in water and sewer bills could only be used for water and sewer and not siphoned off for some other county needs.

“I had seen what happens in the surrounding counties when the utilities are mingled with the public coffers. Money just kind of gets bled off. I’ve not seen a government agency that can accumulate a pot of money and just leave it alone.” In essence, he said, the money becomes a hidden tax and when funds are needed for water and sewer improvements, rates are just increased.

But his WorkSource efforts are probably what he is most proud of, “I think for the reason that it’s helped so many people.”

Agresti was asked to be Clay County’s representative when the agency was born in 1996. He was skeptical.

“I said, ‘I’ll give you a year and if I can make a difference, I’ll stay. And, if I can’t, I’ll leave.” In June, he stepped down as chairman of the agency, a position he was unanimously elected to in 1999.

The mission of WorkSource, to be a one-stop shop for all the various welfare programs, appealed to Agresti.

The system, he said, was a mess in which massive amounts of money were spent and very few people’s lives really improved.

“There was tremendous amounts of money going into these programs, but you would get somebody on welfare and he would go to one counselor for food stamps and another counselor for something else. And, if he wanted to better his education, he’d get with another counselor. And it confused people. Nobody was really paying attention to them and their problems. Each agency was solving just their part of it, and if that didn’t work for the person, then it just didn’t work. He was left floundering.”

WorkSource put it all into one management system, but Agresti said there were two very important aspects that made it work. One, 51 percent of the 65-member board came from private industry.

“In private industry, we make things work financially or we don’t stay in business,” he said. “It’s not that way in government. They kind of play by different rules and have different responsibilities.”

The second key to success, Agresti said, was the authority given the board to cut off welfare payments after two years.

“If somebody was on welfare and we would bring them into the program and they didn’t participate or they had a bad attitude or they didn’t want to progress or they didn’t want to get off of welfare, we just cut their welfare payments off. Those two things made this board successful. In 1996, there were almost 13,000 people on welfare in this six-county region, and in the last few years it’s hovered between 900 and 1,200 people.”

But that wasn’t enough for Agresti and the WorkSource. Having reduced the welfare rolls, they saw that their work could easily be undone unless they took another step: economic development.

“We needed education to train people to work in this community,” he said. That’s when WorkSource partnered with Chamber of Commerce’s Cornerstone program.

“We needed to partner with these guys,” he said. “These guys are bringing in industry. We’re here to train people. We needed to get together so we didn’t overlap each other. That was the birth of the WorkSource-Cornerstone partnership and the R3 [Recruit. Retain. Re-train] program is the combination of those two.”

Not only do these programs save the government money, he said, but “we are making an impact on people’s lives.”

Agresti recalled how being on the board and making policy that changed people’s lives was rewarding, but he didn’t really know how rewarding until in his first year as chairman he got to award a plaque to a women who had been on welfare for more than seven years.

“She was not stupid.” In fact, he said, “She was a pretty intelligent woman. She just didn’t know how to do anything. In our program, we came in and got her a job at a day care center. And, within a year or two she opened her own daycare center. And then she had like three of them going. Then we gave her a plaque, and that was very rewarding because, I sit in the meetings and we talk about all this stuff, but I don’t actually get to see the people. So, when she came in and we gave her this award, it was kind of rewarding to just actually see somebody that’s been helped.”

It was a satisfying sight not likely visible from, say, the cockpit of your average airliner.

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