Bonnie Carr has proven the best way to lead is to bring others up with you. Her impact in Plant City is boundless and she’s ready to see a new wave of leaders shepherd the community into a brighter tomorrow.
Bonnie Carr is someone almost every mover and shaker in Plant City has come to associate with progress.
Whether leading on the City of Plant City’s Planning Board, getting involved in the Chamber’s Ad Hoc committee, working for years for Hillsborough Community College, serving on the Hillsborough County’s Citizen’s Oversight Committee or undertaking multiple civic engagements, Carr has ensured her time spent in the Plant City community would have a lasting impact.
“I think people do best where they have an interest and I think we all have a responsibility to bring others up along the way,” Carr said. “Don’t lose sight of who’s behind you. Volunteer with purpose and always look back. You can directly impact change by touching the lives of someone following in your footsteps. I think a lot of us have been mentored, but have not gone on and mentored others. That’s something that has to change.”
Carr started making waves in Chicago in her early 20s, using her background in finance to reshape her community in all areas from getting involved in campaigns, protests, kickstarting community events that now see thousands of attendees and working with influential clients to help make tomorrow a better place.
When her husband Clarence, to whom she’s been married for 48 years, retired in the early 2000s, they purchased property in Plant City to use as a vacation home with the intention of one day retiring to the Florida town. He was ready to replant his roots, but she was still involved in Chicago.
When they moved and she was offered a job at Hillsborough Community College, where she served for 12 years as Vice President for Administration/CFO and Controller despite taking the position with the promise of it being temporary, she still struggled to let her Chicago passions go. She worked in Plant City four days every week, then flew to Chicago on Fridays and began her weekend work trip there. When the weekend came to a close, she would fly back and immediately start the process over again.
Her work ethic was impeccable and she led through action, showing others it could be done by accomplishing every task thrown her way. Through it all, she joked her husband just kept patiently waiting for her to retire, something they had both assumed she would have done years before.
Once she became active in Plant City, she began to notice the unique qualities lying just under the surface of the strawberry town.
“I started to realize Plant City was such a perfect place for Community Economic Development,” Carr said. “The potential was just huge. I started to joke, ‘If you can’t fix Plant City, what can you fix?’ Not only was it becoming a more diverse community and all the challenges that come with that, but it still had the charm and character that was disappearing from Tampa and Orlando. So I bought into the idea of trying to save or preserve that historic charm, yet figuring out how the city could grow to get itself on the map somewhat for tourism. Selfishly I want peace and space, but I also don’t want to have to drive 20 miles to get to a nice restaurant and have some of the amenities I was used to in Chicago.”
She’s led as chair of the City of Plant City’s Planning Board for the past five years and has been active on the board since 2006, when she was nominated by Commissioner Bill Dodson.
It was time, she said, to once again lead by example. So she decided to step down, passing the chair position to the next in line, Art Wood.
“Bonnie has been an excellent role model to all of us and a great public servant,” Wood said. “I am glad she is staying in the board, but she leaves big shoes to fill as chair.”
She’s been involved in so many impactful decisions over the years and remembers most vividly the votes regarding Walden Lake and the zoning issues for the golf course. She threw herself into the issue, stepping up to understand not just what was being presented, but all of the underlying issues involved in the case. The impact of their decision would affect hundreds of lives and she said they all spent countless hours ensuring they were fully informed and prepared to speak from an educated standpoint for both the homeowners and the investors.
In 2008, with the economic recession, the community faced countless challenges. Everything stopped and then, when things did begin to roll again, it quickly took on a life of its own. Areas look “totally different” now from when they were first brought before the board as an agenda item.
She references the development at the new First Baptist Church and points to the increasing voluntary annexations to prove the city has remained a desirable location.
There’s a balance of fighting to preserve the agriculture and environmental aspects of the community while also ensuring the city continues to blossom.
Carr said she’s enjoyed every minute of it.
Part of Carr’s passion for the future of Plant City lies in ensuring the younger generations have a chance to make an impact on the vision of the city. Without a constant stream of fresh ideas and perspectives she fears the city will remain stagnant. She’s a proud supporter of the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan and believes wholeheartedly in the vision of the future city leaders have presented. However, she worries they’re racing against a ticking clock.
“I’ll be candid. I think Plant City has been run by an old guard and the vision that I had, and the vision that’s in our Comprehensive Plan for 2040, will never happen unless we start to impact the leadership with young people that have more exposure and, quite frankly, more professional talent,” Carr said. “One of the reasons I’m stepping down as chair of the Planning Board is I figured I’ve chaired this thing for at least five years and I go to the council meetings, and people elect themselves as Mayor and they keep the same leaders. And because I’ve been involved in economic development for so long, I’m just suffering watching something so small, like when I look at Midtown I just can’t believe we can’t develop 10 acres. Then I take some responsibility for being a part of Community Economic Development and having no real voice over that happening. Looking at the Planning Board, I just felt like I needed to make an example… so I stepped down to make room for new leaders.”
She’s long preached that younger leadership can help transition communities to where they need to be and it’s a mindset she’s found applicable in so many other areas of life. Whether it’s in a business, organization or group, she said it’s up to the current leaders to start making an effort to pour into those coming up behind them.
“How do you come down this ladder of success?” Carr asked. “That’s the very question I’ve found so many of us are asking. I’m actually writing a book based off of the lessons I’ve learned not only in my life, but by watching others go through similar transitions. So many of us, especially entrepreneurs, have been working hard our entire lives. We saw a problem and we stepped up to fix it. And that mindset, that’s not something that just disappears when it’s time for you to retire. You go to a bookstore and there’s nothing about coming down that ladder without just diving headfirst into full-blown retirement.”
Mentoring others, getting involved civically and socially and continuing to follow your passions are keys to that transition. A lesson she learned from a young age was that you have to be aware of your talents to make in impact.
In her case, her background in finance opened the doors to ensuring she could make her world a better place. If you’re in public relations, for example, she suggests getting involved with impacting a city’s image. Wherever your strengths are is where you’re needed.
“It’s a new day,” Carr said. “We’ve accomplished things, but there’s a lot of scars from doing that. I was blessed with the opportunity to have the exposure I did, to learn from true pioneers. And there are so many of us that are working right here in Plant City to make a difference. I’ve been blessed and I hope, at the end of the day, I’ve been able to help bless someone else.”