'Our mission is really true to everything we do’: 10 years after his death, Josh Freeman’s legacy continues to enrich lives

December 14, 2016

Josh Freeman was a man who believed in more than building homes and shopping centers — for him, it was about building quality of life. And in the 10 years since his untimely death his companies and the organizations in his honor, have continued to carry on the legacy of creating places that enrich lives.

Freeman, who died in a helicopter crash on Dec. 14, 2006, was the President and CEO of the Carl M. Freeman Companies, which develops and manages commercial and residential properties. He also served as the chairman of the Carl M. Freeman Foundation, a private family foundation that provides grants to nonprofits in the mid-Atlantic region.

For those who knew Josh Freeman several words are continually used to describe him — kind, fun-loving, philanthropic, inclusive and witty. He joined the Carl M. Freeman Companies, a company founded in 1947 by his father, Carl, in 1986 as a leasing agent and was named President in 1992. He was a community builder whose leadership and personal commitment was focused on making the places he lived and raised his family a better place for everyone. He also transformed the Carl M. Freeman Foundation by creating a framework for giving that was diverse and focused on the needs of the community.

“The communities that Josh developed were never gated communities, he wanted everyone to enjoy the communities and shopping centers built by the Carl M. Freeman Companies,” said Patti Grimes, executive director of the Carl M. Freeman Foundation and the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation. “The Carl M. Freeman Foundation continues the legacy of the Freeman Family with its generosity. Today, our grant programs continue to give grants and guidance to nonprofit organizations in the communities where the Carl M. Freeman Companies do business and their employees live, work and play.”

After his death, his wife, Michelle D. Freeman, was named President and CEO of these organizations and also founded the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation — a fundraising arts nonprofit in his honor based in Selbyville, Delaware. The foundation’s mission is “partnering to present memorable performances and provide inspired arts education for all.” Programming is focused on community outreach, arts in education, as well as diverse programming at The Freeman Stage at Bayside, an outdoor performance venue.

Despite the unexpected loss of Josh Freeman as their leader, these organizations have continued to thrive in the last decade under the leadership of Michelle Freeman. The Carl M. Freeman Companies weathered the 2008 economic downturn and refocused its efforts to grow both its commercial holdings and third-party management business while maintaining its presence at the Delaware beaches. This includes the opening of Bayside Fenwick Island, the first Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course community in Delaware that continues to build award-winning homes and offer renowned amenities, in addition to its other communities and golf courses, Sea Colony, Bear Trap Dunes, The Bay Club, The Cove and The Preserve. Other developments such as St. Mary’s Square in Beltsville, Maryland; the transformation of the corner of Georgia Avenue at Route, including the redevelopment of Fair Hill Shops in Olney, Maryland; and its newest community, Tidewater Landing in Lewes, Delaware, further demonstrate the continued efforts to create places that enrich lives.

Josh Freeman’s legacy is present today in these amenities and communities. It was Josh who included golf courses as part of the Carl M. Freeman Companies portfolio. He also left his mark in the retail business with the vibrant programming that exists in the shopping centers today owned and/or managed by the company. The philosophy of creating community, exemplified by Josh Freeman, continues to be the cornerstone of the company today and the platform for its tremendous growth.

At Bayside, homes sold have grown from 286 in 2006 to 825 in 2016 with world-class amenities — in addition to the golf course and clubhouse — which include two pools and a splash zone for kids; tennis and pickle ball courts; kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals and launch; and the current construction of the Health and Aquatic Center that is scheduled to open in the fall of 2017.

The community and golf course have also won numerous awards, including “No. 1 Course You Can Play in Delaware,” by Golf Magazine in 2016-2017 and “Community of the Year,” by Homebuilders Association of Delaware in 2015. Additionally, Bear Trap Dunes and the Bay Club, two other golf courses owned by the company, have received state and regional accolades.

The woman at the helm of the Freeman organizations, Michelle Freeman, didn’t let grief stop her from becoming a respected figure in the business world. For her, there wasn’t any other option but to continue the business in the way her husband and father-in-law had intended.

“Josh would be extremely proud of the companies, he was a company man … if I close my eyes and think about a conversation, he would say that he was proud of me for getting through the worst real estate downturn and making really, really hard decisions when it came to the company and vision,” she said. “And then getting the right people in the right seats to ramp this thing back up to come out of that solid. But, Josh’s greatest legacy is his three children. He would be incredibly proud of them and their journey — I see a part of Josh in each one of our children.”

It’s her hard-working attitude and tenacious spirit that got Michelle Freeman recognized by Elle magazine in 2013 as one of the 10 most influential women in Washington, D.C. She is a minority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment — which owns Verizon Center, Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics — and was also featured in the November issue of Washington Life Magazine for her part in WE Capital, which has committed over $12 million for gender-diverse companies that have women leaders or women on the management team.

However, it’s her philanthropic work for which she might be most known for. The Joshua M. Freeman Foundation was founded in 2007, with its first program, The Freeman Stage, debuting in 2008. In nine seasons, the venue has welcomed over 310,000 patrons, including 18,000 arts in education and outreach guests in 2016. The Freeman Stage hosts a wide variety of performances and offers free and low-cost shows in addition to its national recording artist shows. Through its arts in education program, the foundation hopes to offer diverse arts opportunities to every Sussex County student at least four times throughout their educational career. The foundation has already presented or is scheduled to present its legacy mural project — a hands-on visual arts opportunity for middle school students — in seven out of nine school districts in Sussex County, Delaware.

“If it was an arts desert before, then this is the mirage. This is the place that you come and its joyful, it doesn’t judge, it just opens its doors to you and says ‘come on in,’” Michelle Freeman said of The Freeman Stage. “What we offer people, is this respite from life, whatever that is, grief, pain, sickness, whatever — it’s like come and drop that for an hour, two hours and have fun. Experience joy.”

As for the future, Michelle Freeman will continue the vision of these organizations in a way her Freeman family would be proud of, by continuing to enrich lives.

“It’s not like honoring ghosts, some people will say to me, ‘don’t you feel like you’ve been relieved at this point, haven’t you done your duty?’ But really, for me, I’ll forever honor Josh and Carl and Virginia (Josh’s mother), the people who actually gave me the opportunity in a lot of ways to be at the head of these organizations,” she said. “Our mission is really true to everything we do.”