Mention the name Hardy Huntley and several descriptions come to mind: real estate developer, flea market mogul, business entrepreneur, Southern gentleman.
Huntley, who owned a couple thousand acres in Hernando County and the surrounding region, died Saturday at the age of 77. It happened peacefully at his Madeira Beach home with his family gathered at his side.
Friends and business associates are mourning his passing and say life around these parts will seem somehow less colorful without the presence of the man who some described as having a zest for life and an uncanny ability to pick and choose real estate that eventually turned into profitable business ventures.
“I think this area has lost a great individual,” said Huntley’s longtime business partner Peter Creighton. “He was very generous and involved .”
Creighton summed up Huntley’s life succinctly: “He lived a very full and charmed life.”
Creighton said the Huntley developments and business deals under way in Hernando County and elsewhere will proceed.
“Everything will continue on as it has in the past,” Creighton said. “Plans have been made for a seamless transition.”
Creighton was in Brooksville earlier this month when county commissioners approved Huntley’s request to update the master plan for a 20-acre commercial parcel at the southwest corner of State Road 50 and Mariner Boulevard.
Commissioners approved the plan but there is no word what will be built on the site. Creighton still isn’t talking as of Wednesday but said it is currently the main priority in Hernando County.
Perhaps Huntley’s biggest challenge locally came in the autumn of 2001 when a local environmental group attempted to block the development of a Walmart at the corner of U.S. 19 and Osowaw Boulevard.
The group, which enlisted legal services and others to protect what they said was a vital black bear habitat, successfully delayed the construction of the giant retailer. But in the end, county commissioners withheld a previous rezoning on the property and Walmart soon started building.
Walmart was joined by others and, today, the Nature Coast Commons is a sprawling retail complex anchored by such stores as Ross Department Stores, Sears and JC Penney.
From his humble beginnings as the owner of a roadside stand, he built up the Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park. Huntley soon took over other flea markets in the region. He branched out into real estate, buying up huge swaths of property and selling them to developers.
He became friends with Realtors, politicians and community bigwigs. But he also cherished friendships with everyday folk and could be seen driving his cherished tractor up and down the aisles of the Wagon Wheel Flea Market, greeting customers.
“Some of his favorite times were either walking the aisles of his flea market or spending time on his tractor,” said Creighton, who met Huntley in 1987 and soon became his partner and public spokesman in his business ventures.
County Commissioner Nick Nicholson said he came across Huntley in his days as an engineer and when he ran for county commissioner last year, Huntley allowed him to erect campaign signs on his property.
“It was a big shock, I believe to everybody,” Nicholson said of his passing.
Assistant County Administrator for Planning & Development Ron Pianta said Huntley still owned much property in Hernando County.
“Mr. Huntley was very easy to deal with,” Pianta said. “He was very unassuming, very direct and cordial.
“Everything he did was always straightforward and above board.”
Pianta said Huntley was a self-made man and with his quiet demeanor, “you wouldn’t know he was worth the amount of money he was.”
“He chose the projects that he wanted to do and what he wanted to see on his property,” Pianta said.
Buddy Selph, broker with Tommie Dawson Realty, said Huntley has the record for the highest dollar land deal for a multi-family site in Hernando County history. Huntley sold 10 acres on Northcliffe Boulevard, just west of Mariner Boulevard, for $3 million in 2010.
Huntley bought the property in 2001 for $850,000.
“Hardy was pretty good at buying low and selling high,” said Selph, who brokered several of the landowner’s property in the past.
Selph called Huntley “a true Southern gentleman from West Virginia.”
“Hardy was one of the finest gentlemen I ever dealt with,” Selph said.