Freeport mayor Russ Barley on the past, future of Freeport and how he fits into it

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

FREEPORT – You can’t take the Freeport out of Russell (aka Russ) Barley.

Freeport is Barley’s home; it always has been. Minus college and brief stints in Mississippi and Jacksonville, Barley, the 11th mayor and a Freeport native, has been there through it all.

A student in the second ever Freeport High School graduating class in 1966, he remembers the town with 300 or so people, a wooden grocery store with four aisles and a caution light in the center by the fountain.

Freeport Mayor Russ Barley laughs as he recounts some of his early memories of his childhood in Freeport.

And he sees it for what it is now — the Freeport with a Publix, multiple large housing developments under construction and a sewage system that has nearly reached capacity — and all the awkward stages in between.

But as a bystander to the growth, Barley sees what might be invisible to a passer-by, but he knows has been there all along: potential.

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And while being mayor isn’t the power-wielding position he once thought (the City Council makes most decisions, he said), Barley likes to think he played a part — albeit a small one — in the trajectory of the city that sits along a highway (U.S. Highway 331).

“It makes me feel good,” Barley said. “I think it gives me a sense of accomplishment — not that I singlehandedly did it, but it is under my administration. It makes me feel good that I was able to do something for the community that I grew up in.”

Finding his way back to Freeport

Barley had open heart surgery with five bypasses the day before his second mayoral election in July 2017. When he woke up, he only had one question: “Did I win?”

He did.

Barley was re-elected for four-year terms in 2017 and 2021.

Being mayor is who Barley is, even if he never planned on it.

While his late father, Gene Barley, was the second elected mayor of Freeport, Barley never planned on following in his footsteps. 

He has always represented Freeport, though. He was the first male cheerleader for the Freeport Bulldogs basketball team, was voted class president and vice president multiple times and lettered in basketball and track. But like many others who grow up in small towns, Barley once wanted little to do with Freeport, a meager town with dirt roads where you’d be lucky to see five cars a day go down State Road 20, he said.

He spent a couple years studying at what used to be Okaloosa-Walton Community College and then missed the draft by three days, he said. He joined the Navy and served five years. His last station was in Pensacola.

Then there was civil service in Mississippi, something Barley loathed to the point where it affected his health. But it drove him to the one thing he still has a passion for today: flowers.

Barley is probably one of few mayors with his own flower shop. He discovered his knack for arranging flowers at a county fair while he was stationed in Pensacola, where he won two second-place awards and a best of show award in the floral design division.

“I then ordered a correspondence course on floral design, and after I started the course it was like I knew what to do next without even reading it,” Barley said. “I kind of felt like it's a gift from God. It just comes natural for me.”

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After a couple years with his own shop, Designs by Russ, in Mississippi, Barley started to miss the beach. He still wasn’t ready to come back to Freeport, though.

“I'd gotten used to city life, and Freeport was still very small, a little bit of difference from when I grew up here, but not a lot,” he said. “I chose to go to Jacksonville, Florida.”

It took 14 years and a guilt trip from his parents for Barley to find his way back to Freeport. He is glad they did it, though.

Barley’s current flower shop, Emerald Coast Flowers, along with a women’s clothing boutique, is conveniently located across the street from the mayor’s office.

Becoming and staying the mayor of Freeport

It might seem strange for a mayor to have his own flower shop if you didn’t already know Barley never planned on being mayor.

“I was satisfied doing flowers and still am. I don't plan to give that up,” he said. “But one day, I needed some ink and some paper for my computer, and I had to drive to DeFuniak Springs to pick it up. I thought, ‘How ridiculous this is to do that when we should have something here in Freeport.’ I got to thinking about it, and I started discussing it with friends and my son (Christopher Scott). I said, ‘Maybe I'll run for mayor and see if I can make some changes.’ ”

Barley also recognized a job shortage.

“I would go to the graduations and after that, they were gone. There was nothing here for them to do. They couldn't be employed, so they couldn’t stay around their family or hang out.”

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Barley had never held a public office, but he had leadership experience. He was a business major in college, attending Hunts Junior College and Jackson State University.

The previous mayor, Mickey Marse, had been in office for 22 years. Barley had heard Marse was interested in retiring, but he had heard wrong.

“He said, ‘No, he hadn't thought about retiring,’ and wanted to know why I was inquiring, so I told him that I was thinking about throwing my hat in the ring to see if I could do something to help Freeport,” Barley said. “So he said, ‘If that's what you want to do, you go across the hallway and you get your application and fill it out.”

Barley obliged, but only to the first half. He kept the application for months before filling it out.

“I wanted to really think about it before I actually did it,” Barley said. “With the encouragement of family and friends, I decided to turn it in.”

In 2013, the Daily News reported it was the largest turnout ever for a Freeport election. Barley thinks his identity has little to do with him being elected, though.

“We have so many new people here that I think people just wanted to change,” Barley said. “I don't think it had to be me, per se. Whenever I was campaigning, I was saying how I would like to see growth and things of that nature. I know a lot of people don't like change; I understand that. I understood that when I came in office, especially since they had been used to the previous mayor for 22 years.”

It was true; people wanted change. Barley was elected the same year as two city councilmen who had been in office 20-plus years were replaced.

Freeport Mayor Russ Barley (from left); Doug Duncan, Owl's Head Farms investor; Shelton Stone, general manager of Owl's Head Farms; and Megan Harrison, president of the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce shovel dirt at a groundbreaking ceremony.

The day after he was sworn in, Barley had a meeting with the city staff.

“I said, ‘Please give me an opportunity to see what I could do, and if at the end of the four years, if I had not done anything or not gone the direction that they would like to see it go then, I just wouldn't pursue it anymore,” he said.

Four years went by quick — so quickly, in fact, that Barley found himself waking up from a major surgery hoping he was still the mayor of Freeport. And while he was happy to be re-elected, his challenges weren’t over.

Barley was diagnosed with rectum cancer in September 2017 and underwent chemotherapy and radiation.

“I really thought between the heart and that, it was gonna do me in. I really did,” Barley said. “But apparently, I do have some things to do on Earth. I'm here and I'm healed, and I'm cancer-free.”

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The role of a mayor is misunderstood, he said.

“I don’t have a vote at all,” Barley said. “I’m administrative. I conduct meetings and I attend ribbon-cuttings and grand openings and things of that nature. I think the general public doesn't understand that. I, myself, didn't even realize it until I came in office. And then of course, I had to learn very quickly about how things were and what you could and couldn't do.”

But he has learned how he can make a difference, often through insight from other mayors who have become friends. One of his best friends is Gene Wright, the mayor of Malone.

“Although Malone is much smaller than Freeport, he has given me some advice that has been very helpful to me, as well as other mayors, too,” Barley said. “And I work well with the mayor of DeFuniak Springs. He and I have become very, very good friends. So it's just a matter of relating with other communities to see what's good for Freeport.”

And Barley is kosher with the concept that people won’t like everything he does.

“If you painted something white, they want to know why it’s not blue,” he said. “You have to get tough, tough skin. Now, everybody don't like me. I understand that. But the majority of the people that live here are favorable to me being in office.”

The future of Freeport

Freeport is hardly finished growing.

Freeport gained 1,794 new customers for water and sewer in 2020, now to a point where the city has to worry about its sewage capacity, Barley said.

“We're not worried about water; we have plenty of water, but sewer is very important,” he said. “We're probably 75% to 80% capacity right now, but we're in the process of upgrading.”

Peter Wright Jr. with the Ships Chandler (right) and Freeport Mayor Russ Barley look over plans for the business' new Freeport Marine and Service Center on U.S. Highway 331.

Freeport received a grant to upgrade its sewer system to the tune of about $35 million, Barley said. He estimates it will take two years.

Last year, the City Council also voted to hire its first city manager, Charlie Simmons. That same year, the city received the Gene Wright Municipal Resilient Award from the Northwest Florida League of Cities, the City of the Year Award from the Veterans Vouture Locale and the state of Florida-City of the Year Award from the same organization. 

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With more students in schools, an expansion of Freeport Elementary School is near completion, and plans are in the works for a new middle school and high school. A new transportation facility is being built to help with the school buses and their maintenance.

Sara Bowers, the city financial officer, said much positive growth has occurred under Barley’s administration. He is passionate about the city, she said.

“On the residential side, the city — with the mayor and the city manager at the helm — it’s pushing for the infrastructure so we can get the businesses in,” Bowers said. “Infrastructure is water and sewer to support hotels or any other business that will be interested in coming to Freeport, ... The growth is at the point where Freeport can rival Crestview in 10 to 15 years, as far as size.”

But what still separates Freeport from other cities is the “hometown feel,” she said.

“The location is always everything, I mean right here on the bay,” Bowers said. “A lot of people, with all the congestion on the south end, are relocating to Freeport. The great thing with being just north of the bay, we’re not going to have the tourists like the beaches are. That helps with the small town feel.”

Barley suspects things will continue in that direction with new businesses and developments, and likely an additional 32,000 people.

Perhaps the most pivotal business is Publix. While there had been talk of the grocery store moving into Freeport for some time, Barley didn't think there were enough rooftops – until there were.

“That was probably the start of the explosion of businesses coming here, because the other companies realized that they had done their homework,” Barley said. “They do all kind of surveys and things of that nature before they're going to put out any effort like that, so that was very rewarding for me, the day that they brought the bulldozers for that.”

With that came a shopping strip, a Taco Bell and more interested developers. Next will be a Cefco and, for the first time, an art gallery.

“Freeport’s never had an art gallery,” Barley said. “But the type of people that are moving here now from the larger cities, they like things like that.”

While seemingly not a big deal to have collected a couple gas stations and a fast-food joint, they are sure signs of what Barley has seen all along: potential.

Not to say Freeport doesn't have some challenges ahead.

Growth will also likely be limited by the absence of a true downtown. Freeport is basically a city along a highway with much — if not all — of the new growth limited to the U.S 331 corridor. At least it has four lanes now, Barley said.

Saving Freeport's history

Barley has his mind on the future, but he hasn’t forgotten the past.

After seeing many historic buildings torn down, Barley has made it a priority to keep Freeport’s history intact.

“When I moved back and I saw that, I was just devastated. ... All the homes that I remember growing up here, and of course, all the people are gone,” he said.

Freeport Mayor Russ Barley talks about the rich maritime history that gave the city its name while inside the Heritage Center of Freeport Museum and Visitors Center.

Volumes of Freeport history collected by former historian Rebecca Buxton and an unused old post office inspired Barley to start the Museum of Freeport. Inside is an eclectic assortment of its history, like the front door of a home Barley loved on Madison Street that has since been torn down. Barley actually traded anniversary flowers with someone in exchange for the door.

“I don't know why I wanted the door. I just remembered as a child walking by it. It was a two-story home, and you could see the pink light through that door because it’s stained glass. That brought back memories to me.”

While Freeport renamed the library the Rebecca Buxton Memorial Library, no one has volunteered to replace her as historian. Instead, Barley concocted a makeshift museum that holds photos of former teachers and students and government officials. Among them, of course, are pictures of his father, who died in 2000, and his mother, former first lady, who died in 1998.

His father was alive when Barley was named the first Walton County businessman of the year, but not for his mayoral campaign.

“He would probably say, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Barley said.