Guy Thompson got hooked when he was in high school, and he’s still hooked.
On politics and public service, that is.
Thompson, Milton’s mayor for nearly 20 years, first got the politics bug in 1971, when he was a junior at Milton High School. That’s when city officials set up a student council to explain government to young people. Students studied government and “shadowed” elected officials to learn what they did.
“I’ve always been interested in politics,” says Thompson, recalling how he and other members of the student council established Scratch Ankle Day to bring the community together. “They let the kids do it,” he said.
Some 40 booths were set up downtown, offering churches and civic groups a chance to showcase their volunteer work and encouraging people to play games and enjoy homegrown entertainment.
“It was a success, and it grew and grew over the years,” said Thompson, who attributed its popularity to the community connections it inspired. “You just saw so many people you hadn’t seen in a year,” he said.
Thompson’s been a fixture in local government for decades, but his first try didn’t succeed.
In 1975 he ran for mayor and lost.
“I’m glad I didn’t win,” he says. “I was too young and naïve.”
The personable Thompson did better in his next effort, successfully running for Milton City Council in 1978. He would hold a seat on the council until 1994, when he became mayor.
One of Thompson’s first goals as a council member was to revive the flagging downtown, where some buildings were literally sagging toward the Blackwater River. He was appointed to a committee in 1980 to find ways to bring back downtown; the work is ongoing, and he’s excited at prospects for the next few years. That committee’s work led to the Riverwalk, which has made the waterfront accessible to many more people.
“It’s not where we want it, but it’s getting there,” said Thompson, who has lived in Milton since he was nine.
Now he’s excited by the city’s efforts to build a tourism district downtown and a study which will offer ideas for brightening the entire area from Carpenter’s Park through downtown Milton and through the Village of Bagdad. It will look at opportunities on both sides of the river. The city also is taking steps to improve nearby blighted areas by establishing Community Redevelopment Agencies that offer tax breaks to encourage redevelopment. In addition, he’s eager to make people aware of the value of local schools and encourage Whiting Field personnel to live in Milton rather than commute from elsewhere.
Thomson is enthusiastic about Milton’s future. “I know the people, I see the potential,” he said.
Milton has taken other steps. Rewriting the Civil Service laws enabled the city to develop a more professional staff, and government grants and business growth have helped the city improve its appearance.
Thompson can see upgrades from his office at United Way of Santa Rosa County, where he is the executive director. It’s now a stylish building, a major improvement from the vacant shell it was not so long ago. Nearby, a new grocery store recently opened, as did a tractor supply company. Both meant new jobs for the area.
Thompson became mayor in 1994, a job he has held longer than any of his predecessors. One emphasis since 1994 has been improving city facilities – City Hall, the police station, the fire station, the community center and more.
“We have done it with very little debt,” he said.
And Milton’s population is growing. It’s the 17th fastest growing city in Florida, especially encouraging because many cities have lost residents in recent years.
Now the plan is to keep improving the city’s curb appeal – appearance is a key factor in whether new businesses and new residents choose an area. This, in turn, can lead to higher property values.
Thompson said many of his goals came from a “visioning session” in which City Council members and others outlined their goals for Milton. “It’s not just one person. It takes a team,” he said.
Looking ahead, transportation and the fate of the aging Santa Rosa County Courthouse are on the city’s agenda.
Traffic on U.S. 90 will be the subject of a Florida Department of Transportation study to be completed next year, and that will include a look at downtown traffic and the impact it has on East Milton, which could be home for many new jobs.
“We have to look to the future,” Thompson said. “To do that, you have to have good transportation.”
The courthouse has been a stumbling block for years, with voters rejecting previous plans to replace the outdated facility. Thompson plans to revive the issue soon by meeting with the county commission, the building’s owners. He wants a new courthouse, but still within the city limits.
“I want the courthouse to stay in Milton, but not necessarily downtown,” Thompson said.
He thinks voters will approve a straightforward proposal to raise the local sales tax by one penny, provided the tax is eliminated once the new courthouse is in place. Voters approved a similar plan which enabled construction of a new sheriff’s office and jail, with the tax abolished after the work was done.
This will take a lot of communication and planning, but Thompson said good government can convince taxpayers they’re getting a fair deal. This includes listening to people from all sides of the political spectrum.
“Everybody on the team has to know your plan. You’ve got to keep an open mind about how it affects everybody,” said Thompson.
Like many politicians, he has had opportunities to seek other public offices, but he prefers to stay where he is.
“I’ve enjoyed it. This is where I want to make my impact,” he said. “I’ve been blessed.”
Next month, MiltonLOCAL.com will feature a conversation with City Clerk DeWitt Nobles.