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As we get closer to the August 2024 Republican Primary – we want to look at the candidates for Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners District 5 candidates, including incumbent Commissioner Mel Ponder.

Ponder is the former Mayor of Destin and a Member of the Florida House of Representatives representing Niceville and the rest of Southern Okaloosa County.

Ponder, a Republican, will wrap up his first term in 2024 and hopes to win re-election. No other candidates have announced themselves as candidates for the seat. However, there are rumors former independent candidate Wes Fell will consider a run as a Republican for the seat Ponder currently sits in.

Ponder says he has conservative values and believes he has made good use of taxpayer money over the last four years, especially related to half-cent infrastructure projects like the Southwest Crestview Bypass.

Here are some questions we asked him in our October 2023 interview with Commissioner Ponder.

Who is Mel Ponder?

“I live in Destin. [I’ve been] married 32 years. My wife is from Destin, and we’ve raised our three kids here in Destin. [Destin is a] great community, you know, [I’m] just real passionate about making sure people rise up into their purpose and call, and [I’m] thankful [for] the opportunity that I’ve had to serve in government at the local and state now back at the county level. [I]just believe there’s significance to what we’re doing here.

I’m very, very bullish on our area and our values and families.

I think maintaining our culture and family values here [is] really important to us. And I think it’s important to our community.

I’ve had the honor of being back home working at the county for three, almost three years now. And it’s been a great ride, I really love what I’m doing, thankful for what I’m doing and ultimately, hopefully, helping people.”

a man smiling in a portrait photograph
Okaloosa Commissioner Mel Ponder | October 18, 2023

What Accomplishments Should We Judge You By?

“I think being fiscally conservative, I’d love to see your tax payers dollars at work with a plan and with some consistency.

I think when [In 2018, Okaloosa County] residents passed the surtax in this county by referendum, in order for us to collect an extra half cent surtax half cent penny for the surtax, all the plans were known upfront.

We’re bringing that in as part of that to southwest bypass and Crestview. That’s a beautiful example of our tax dollars at work, the widening of PJ Adams, the interchange going north, the new Virgin road connecting up to 90, and some east-west connections in there as well. That’s another $207 million project that we’re funding with quite a bit of surtax [dollars].

You know, [the] affordable housing [issue] is one example where you look at our county; we’re not unlike other counties throughout the state, let alone the nation. But I love how we are not sitting on [the problem] we put together a proposal to get a plan developed. And we that should be done in the coming days, thankfully.

But we’ve got an issue, you got our military, we have missions coming in and out. We don’t have adequate housing for them.

Commissioner Mixon sits on our affordable housing committee [and is] doing an outstanding job. They’re leading that. And so we have several groups in the county, including the Association of Realtors, the building industry, and other players that are at the table for that. So I’m excited to see that we’re not just talking about a problem because one of the things that frustrates me a little bit is it’s easy to sit back and talk about a continuous problem. But what are we doing with it? And so I’m thankful to see that our county is actually trying to tackle that and get some plans in place to do something with it.

I have a passion for working together with our youth and am very pleased with the partnership that we now have with the school district [which created] a Youth Leadership Council. We develop plans every year for the county and the school district.

I started a group called benefiting exceptional students in transition (BEST)… We didn’t have an all-inclusive Field of Dreams type of complex so I was able to work with our legislators last year and get some funding for us to build our first kind of Field of Dreams of sorts that we’re looking to do in Niceville over the next 12 to 18 months, so I’m excited about that as well.

So there’s several things like that in that bucket of excitement, that taxpayer money at work that we can see it, feel it that’s meeting the needs.

What Does the Future of Niceville Look Like? How do we make the city more affordable for people?

“Nothing wrong with Freeport – great community, but I would prefer [young people looking for attainable housing – especailly those who are from here] to stay in Niceville. Stay home if we can. It’s not just Niceville, it’s Crestview. Its Destin. Even you go towards Baker and Laurel Hill, you have some of those communities on the north end of the county [that have become more expensive]. It’s the affordability of land has created an upward pressure on [home prices in Okaloosa County].

There has been public discussion about working with the military, on the on the stretch of land south of the bypass (between Spence Parkway and College Boulevard), where we could look at some affordable housing possibilities there. We’ve not had that kind of optimism and hope in some time here. And so I’m very grateful that the military is willing to have the conversation.

Great days, In my opinion, are ahead for the greater community of Niceville… home values are a hurdle we’re going to have to be attentive to.”

How are you helping to prepare our economy for the future?

“If we ever lose sight of our fighting men and women, we’re missing the mark. [The military is] over 75% of our economy. It’s our number one asset in terms of our county’s economic impact. [Christopher, the reporter] mentioned tourism, that’s arguably 10 to 12% of our economy. We need a third, fourth or fifth leg of the stool. And so when you’re working with our partners through One Okaloosamanufacturing is low-hanging fruit. We’ve got a tremendous opportunity at the Shoal River Ranch on the county’s north end… We got the governor to come and give us some economic development dollars to improve the intersection there, we got some further money to continue those improvements into Shoal River through our water and sewer department. We’re looking at putting a wastewater treatment plant in there – that will be really a huge win. 

We got highway 90 frontage that we’re improving, but we don’t have an interchange on the interstate.

We’re launched now – we had a manufacturer come in and get started up there, Central Maloney. And so I’m very excited about having them to introduce that area now. We got the ball rolling. 

There’s other industrial complexes within the county, but that one’s got tremendous potential because there’s a lot of land, there’s road system, there’s a rail system.”

How are you preparing for the 2024 Election?

“I’m planning on running. I’ve been grateful to be back [in Okaloosa County], grateful that the voters and residents of Okaloosa have hired me. [Voters have] allowed me to serve and been gracious and [I’m] still learning to make sure we serve them the best way. My plan is to get pre-filed in the next couple of weeks. I still feel called to serve, I still feel called to the local area to serve I’m still fighting for home rule and the things that matter most here at home… I came back and ran under ‘family faith, freedom and forward.’ 

Family 

That still is vitally important to me. Maintaining our family values and anything that impacts that I think we need to have a say in. 

Faith

Engaging the faith-based community. I think we have opportunities there. There’s some that would hesitate, but I think we can have wisdom and how we work together there.

Freedom

Freedom is just maintaining our constitutional freedoms, and I think with our county and the leadership we have. The fellow commissioners I serve with believe that is important to them as well.

Forward

Forward is that piece of what we can do with the surtax, working with our legislature. We’re looking at the expanded bed tax, sports tourism, and tremendous opportunities in the days ahead. I’m very bullish about Okaloosa County. Our proximity to the southeastern United States, the culture, the community is making sure we don’t lose the DNA of our county, as influences come in, that maybe would take away from that. I think we all have an opportunity to be a watchman of sorts to make sure we maintain our identity. We have 67 counties, each of them have a purpose and identity. And people choose to live here or there based on [those cultures]. And I think what’s unique about us, our area: we do honor God, we do honor each other, we do honor our fighting men and women. I believe we have that conservative values that match up with who we are and what we stand for. When people come to visit through tourism, I want them to have family-type encounters so that when they go back home, they’re talking about something unique about our area.”

What do 'family values' mean to you?

“we [are] people of character, people of integrity, that love family that love each other, that honor and serve each other.”

What threats does our area face?

“I think, you know, economically, a big threat we have as potential loss of missions in the military. you have things like the Rice’s Whale situation that’s just popped his head up recently. You have pulling bases, you a current federal administration that may move some things around. When you have something that’s 75% of your economy, you got to be mindful. You have the Gulf Range out there. And if we lose any of that to drilling of any kind, that becomes a permanent fixture and it takes away from the mission of the military. And so I think focusing on the mission of the military, probably my number one thing that makes sure we’re being sensitive as a county, [about] what we support, embrace and what we will not stand for.

The second thing is infrastructure is always a big deal going forward… roads, sidewalks, stormwater systems, anything like that is aging infrastructure is becoming an even greater problem, even in the Bluewater Bay Area. It’s a constant issue that’s brought up – about the flooding that’s going on there and aging and crumbling infrastructure underground. So we got to be mindful that some of [the fault for issues] falls at [Okaloosa County’s] feet. Some of this falls that private homeowners feet. Collectively, we’re in it together to look through that. 

Affordable housing I’d say is third simply because we can’t price everybody out from living in a home, buying a home renting an apartment or renting a home [in the area]. Homeownership is a really, really big deal. I’m not looking to get into the housing industry as a county. However, when it comes to planning, and when it comes to thinking through ideas and forecasts, I think we can hopefully have some plans people can have hope in. And also give thanks again to the military for being willing to have a conversation about, ‘hey, what does it look like when we work together from that regard?'”

Goals for your next term? What will be done by 2028 in order for your next potential term to be successful?

“The special needs park, it’s a big deal to me. And I’ll just say that’ll be done in the next year and a half. But it’d be something unique. There’s nothing else like it in the Panhandle.

I think the further work we’re doing on infrastructure at that point in time, all of the work around the city of Crestview, the initial phase of the Southwest bypass should be complete by then. Again, I think it’s important that taxpayers see that at work, improving intersections up and down highway 85. I think if we could work toward getting some approvals for [SR-85 expansion] not only does affect the mission in the military, but also evacuation routes, and north-south corridor traffic – that would be a huge win.

We have niche opportunities and sports tourism on the county’s north end. Everyone wants to build a major baseball complex, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s that’s some big money. But I think we have assets in that field already between Crestview destined for wall Niceville where we could build we could actually build major tournaments around what we have and they can still come go to the beach, eat in a restaurant shop in our stores, but have a little circuit like basically like tournament circuits. So I think we can be creative around tourism and taking the base of the beach and expanding it to include some opportunities outside of that. And so I think those are three or four just great opportunities we have on the horizon that we can accomplish in the next three or four years.”

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