By Samantha Lambert
“Keep your eye on the horizon” is the mantra of newly installed Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce Chair Bill Roberts. Born and raised in Fort Walton Beach, Roberts has spent most of his life working to make his hometown a great place to work and live.
Roberts was born in the Fort Walton Beach Hospital that was originally on Brooks Street in the downtown area. His father, Billy Roberts, worked with his brother Paul at Roberts Drug Store on Highway 98. Roberts is a product of the Okaloosa County School System and attended Florida State University.
After Florida State, Roberts started working at Sears Roebuck and Company. It was there that he got his start in the insurance business when he went to work for Allstate. He would work for Allstate for 30 years.
In 1971, Roberts married the former Debi Hansen. Bill and Debi have two sons—Robbie (44) and Drew (36)—and six grandchildren. Debi has been the registrar at Liza Jackson Preparatory School for the last 16 years. The couple have been married for 46 years.
In 1985, Roberts began thinking about running for the City Council in Fort Walton Beach. His father had served as a member, and was also mayor of Fort Walton Beach. Roberts ran for Council and won. He would serve for one term on the Council from 1985 to 1989.
“While I was on the City Council, I was elected chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency,” says Roberts. “During my time on that committee, the city purchased six acres of land in downtown Fort Walton Beach that became the Landing. That was one of the most meaningful things I was part of while on the Council.”
In 1989, Roberts ran for mayor of Fort Walton Beach and won. After serving one term as mayor, Roberts stepped away from politics for a while. In 2002, he decided to get back into politics and ran for Okaloosa County Commissioner. He won and represented District 3 until 2012.
“District 3 covered an area from the Kenwood subdivision in Fort Walton Beach northward to Baker, Holt and Milligan,” says Roberts. “I learned a lot about the north end of Okaloosa County and its beauty. It was a tough job, but I met so many good people.”
In 2013, Roberts went to work for Barnes Insurance and Financial Services, where he is currently the managing director at the Fort Walton Beach location. For the last few years, Roberts has become more involved with the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
He had previously served on the Chamber’s Liaison Committee while on the Okaloosa County Commission. He became a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors and Chairman Elect in 2016. In January, Roberts was sworn in as the new Chairman of the Board of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Elizabeth Chestnut, the Director of Administration and Social Media Manager for the Chamber, says, “Bill is absolutely wonderful to work with. He has a great heart and interest in the Fort Walton Beach community, and I cannot wait to see what all he does as chair in 2017.”
“My husband has always been very sincere about what he did in city and county government and did not let people influence him,” says Roberts’ wife Debi. “He really cares about his community. I have always supported him and am so very proud of him.”
The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1946 by a small group of businessmen. Today, it is the largest Chamber of Commerce from Pensacola to Tallahassee and boasts 2,000 members.
As for keeping an eye on the horizon? “I want the Chamber of Commerce to continue to give value to its members and their businesses and to be a constant in our community,” says Roberts.
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