A look back at 2015's accomplishments, a look ahead to 2016's priorities

MATT ALGARIN 315-4462 | @DestinlogMatt malgarin@thedestinlog.com
Mayor Mel Ponder and City Manager Greg Kisela.

As 2015 comes to a close, The Log sat down with Mayor Mel Ponder and City Manager Greg Kisela to reflect on the year that was, and discuss the year that's upcoming.

While they could have listed dozens of accomplishments, Ponder and Kisela narrowed their lists down to five; here's their choices for 2015's top accomplishments.

Ponder:

— Leonard Destin Park:

Through a partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and The Trust for Public Land, the city will see this parcel of land at 101 Calhoun Avenue transformed into a park, complete with a kayak launch, a fruit tree grove, restrooms with outdoor showers, a splash pad, playground, parking for 30 cars, a full-sized historical seine boat, and a large picnic pavilion.

"For a community of our size to get a park of this magnitude, that's completely unheard of, at least not without matching funds," Ponder said. "This is a huge victory; it honors our heritage and our families."

— Catalyst Grant for the Destin Community Center:

The children that attend the Destin Community Center’s afterschool program will soon be planting thanks to a grant from Florida Business Watch and the Florida League of Mayors.

"Victory is different through the eye of the beholder," he said. "From a community standpoint, I think giving kids something to have a vision with is huge. This is a cool victory for the children of our community."

— Refinancing of city bonds:

After refinancing current debt over the past few years, the city is now in position to save nearly $800,000 in annual debt service.

"The cash flow savings, for a city of our size and our budget, this was huge," Ponder told The Log.

— Grant Funds:

Between Stormwater, NRDA, the catalyst grant and others, the city has seen a number of grants come its way in 2015.

"We've been in unusual favor. Its been tremendous," Ponder said.

— Food For Thought Lease:

The organization, which will lease the Airport Road property from the city, currently serves 15 schools in Okaloosa and Walton counties. It provides 1,200 backpacks to students each week.

"This was something bad, which turned into something amazing," Ponder said of the site which was once slated to become a strip club.

Kisela:

— Early Restoration money/Leonard Destin Park:

Through a partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and The Trust for Public Land, the city will see this parcel of land at 101 Calhoun Avenue transformed into a park, complete with a kayak launch, a fruit tree grove, restrooms with outdoor showers, a splash pad, playground, parking for 30 cars, a full-sized historical seine boat, and a large picnic pavilion.

"This is an absolute godsend for us," Kisela told The Log. "If you would have asked me about this last year, it wasn't even on the radar."

— Food For Thought:

The organization, which will lease the Airport Road property from the city, currently serves 15 schools in Okaloosa and Walton counties. It provides 1,200 backpacks to students each week.

"This went from something very undesirable to something very positive for the community," Kisela said.

— RESTORE Act projects:

Captain Royal Melvin Heritage Park and Plaza, $1.25 million. This project builds a park and plaza to serve as a public gateway to the Destin harbor and its charter fishing fleet. Clement Taylor Park restoration, $750,000. Restores the park by demolishing the existing playground and replacing it.

"The community is going to have some really nice assets with these parks," Kisela said.

— Partnerships with the county, state leaders:

Through continual partnerships with local and state leaderships, the city of Destin has positioned itself to work cohesively when it comes to finding solutions to issues such as stormwater, transportation and spring break rowdiness.

— Comprehensive Plan:

Discussions about the comprehensive plan talks were mostly straight forward, as a compromise was reached with various stakeholders prior to the city's Dec. 16 special city council meeting. And while not everyone got what they wanted, the overarching theme was that it was time to move forward. The plan will come back for second reading before final adoption.

Overall, 2015 was deemed a successful year by most measures, Kisela and Ponder told The Log.

"If we are sitting here at this time next year, with Leonard Destin Park complete, Norriego Point (hardening) started, Clement Taylor restored and Heritage Park in process, the stormwater grant moving along — for a community of our size — I'll be real pleased," Kisela said. "We had a great year in 2015, but 2016 could be an even better year."

Looking ahead

As for the year soon to be upon city leaders, there are plenty of items to look forward to, as well as plenty of items that need to be addressed.

Ponder told The Log the upcoming mayoral and municipal elections in March will go a long way in shaping the future of the city, as there will be a new mayor and potentially four new city councilors.

"The continuity of leadership and what we are building is key," he said. "These will be our policy makers for the future."

Key projects for the upcoming year for Ponder are stormwater repairs, transportation issues and the hardening of Norriego Point.

"Seeing the initial hardening (of the point) will give people hope," Ponder said. "It's easy to get excited in the paper, but actually seeing work happening is different."

For his part, Kisela told The Log the biggest challenge facing the city in 2016 is transportation and infrastructure related.

"Whether it's resurfacing the streets or building the Crosstown Connector, enhancing mobility, whether for our residents or visitors, is a constant struggle," he said. "The solution is going to be in the tens of millions of dollars, but we've got some things in place to help address those issues."

Other priorities going into 2016 include the completion of Clement Taylor Park renovations, and construction of Capt. Royal Melvin Heritage Park and Leonard Destin Park, as well as implementing the appropriate "tools in the toolbox" to combat any potential issues that may be raised during spring break and taking advantage of the free money city leaders received in grants.

"We have two years on the stormwater grant, so we are on the clock," Kisela said. "If you miss those deadlines, something that was a positive is now a negative."