The Man Behind the Power

He is one of the most powerful and influential men in the Panhandle. A leader and visionary, L. Charles “Charlie” Hilton Jr. came from nothing and created an empire.The Man Behind the PowerL. Charles Hilton Jr., Businessman and Civic LeaderBy Wendy O. Dixon

He is one of the most powerful and influential men in the Panhandle. A leader and visionary, L. Charles “Charlie” Hilton Jr. came from nothing and created an empire.

But along the way, he had his share of hardships that made him the man he is today.

bay-hilton.jpgThe son of a poor contractor, Hilton (no relation to Paris and the Hilton hotel chain) and his family lived a nomadic lifestyle, carrying everything they owned from one place to the next, depending on where his father’s next job would be. Hilton was not in school long enough to know anyone, and recalls no childhood friends.

As a young man trying to make a name for himself, Hilton was as enterprising and dexterous as they come. He has had more careers at one time than many have in a lifetime – lawyer, developer, contractor and civic leader.

He practiced law with former Florida Senate President Dempsey Barron, who died in 2001, and was partners in business with former House Speaker Allan Bense. As CEO of Hilton Enterprises in Panama City, Hilton developed hotels, apartments and commercial buildings in addition to his asphalt company, GAC Contractors.

As a passionate conservative who believes in limited government, Hilton was a founding member of the political organization Club for Growth and led the group Trust the Voters in an attempt to give voters the power to amend the state Constitution. He is chairman of the James Madison Institute, a Florida-based research and educational organization created to advance free-market ideas on public policy issues, and is the former chairman of Florida TaxWatch, a research institute that works to save state taxpayers money. He has always been passionate in his pursuit of America’s economic freedom, and is unapologetically vocal when he disagrees with elected officials.

Some are irked by Hilton’s influence. But none can deny that his life, marked by humble beginnings and many roadblocks, is one of survival, resilience and vision.

Hilton recently talked with 850 Magazine writer Wendy Dixon about his views on the critical issues facing Northwest Florida.

850: What do you see as the challenges and opportunities for development of Northwest Florida?

CH: For us to grow, we have got to expand our economic opportunities by creating a route that connects Panama City to I-10. It is vital for this area, especially with the new Bay County International Airport and the port. If we want to grow and attract industry, we’ve got to provide a path that would allow for quicker access for those driving north or south.

Besides the I-10 connection, we also need to do everything in our power to promote our greatest asset, Panama City Beach. The Tourist Development Council and the Bay County Commission also need to keep the beach clean and renourished, quit bickering and get their acts together.

850: What are the critical issues for Bay County that will appear over the next five to 10 years?

CH: We’re just ending the best time we’ll ever have, and (Bay County) has spent money like it’s going out of style. Our ad valorem taxes have doubled, we’ve had money coming from every direction in the world, and yet we’ve found it necessary to borrow and increase our debt by a significant amount. We’ve gone through a lot of money, and there’s going to come a time when we’re going to have to pay it back.

I led the campaign that resulted in Bay County voters rejecting the half-cent incinerator sales tax. (Bay County) had already collected enough sales tax to pay off the (incinerator) debt three times, and yet still owed more money than they did when they started. Now, we can see what the cost per ton is for our garbage. I agreed to pay the Reason Foundation, a nationwide, nonprofit foundation that specializes in effective solid waste disposal, for their expertise, to come and study our situation and figure out the best thing for us to do. The county rejected it.

850: If you could go back 15 to 20 years, what critical decisions have you made that you might now change?

CH: My problem is I tried to do too much and didn’t realize that life is finite. I could have been known as a great lawyer. I was a great lawyer, but I went in so many directions. In addition to lawyer, contractor, developer, I was trying to save the world.