Pensacola Mayors: Mike Wiggins
In part three of our series on Pensacola’s current and former mayors, we sat down with Mike Wiggins — the final mayor to serve under the old council-manager form of city government — and whose careers have included wearing the nation’s cloth, and working with Mother Nature.
After serving as a Navy Leiutenant and spending time on the Pensacola City Council, Mike Wiggins was elected Mayor in 2008 and served until 2011, when the new “strong mayor” charter took effect. In taking office, he inherited a number of challenges facing the city.
“We were in the middle of the Community Maritime Park debate; the referendum had been held, and now it was time to put it all together and develop the property and build all the infrastructure,” said Wiggins. “That was one of my goals; I was a huge proponent of the Community Maritime Park and the [Pensacola Blue] Wahoos.”
But, as with any major project, the Maritime Park plan had its share of detractors.
“We had all types of naysayers saying ‘it won’t work, nobody’s going to go, it is wasted money,’” Wiggins said. “Of course, just the opposite did happen. The project was, as we used to say back when I was the mayor, ‘It’s going to be a lynchpin for the west side of Pensacola.’ And all you’ve got to do is drive around the north and the west side of Pensacola, and you can see that has been true.”
One challenge that didn’t pan out — but not for a lack of effort — was attempting to lure Southwest Airlines to the then-Pensacola Regional Airport.
“We made multiple trips to Dallas to meet with the executives of Southwest, and one of the worst phone calls I ever got, one of the vice presidents said, ‘Mike, we’ve made our decision, and we’re going to go to Panama City,” said Wiggins. “But he said, ‘I will promise you this: we will be in Pensacola.’”
And in 2013, two years after Wiggins left office, the airline made good on its word.
“I was driving down Summit Boulevard knowing that Southwest did say they were coming to Pensacola, and saw that first Southwest plane cross over and land on the runway,” said Wiggins. “It made by heart sing; it was a big, long battle and we finally got Southwest. And of course, it’s been a huge, huge asset to Pensacola.”
Other accomplishments during Wiggins’ tenure include more minority participation in city contracts; improvements at Roger Scott Tennis Center and other parks and recreation properties; and improvements in the fire and police departments.
In 2009, during his time at mayor, voters approved a rewrite of the city’s charter, featuring a change in city government from council-manager to mayor-council. Wiggins entered the race for reelection against three challengers, seeking to become Pensacola’s first “strong mayor," although he favored keeping the status quo.
“I thought we had a relatively smooth operation; yeah, we hit some bumps in the road — there’s no doubt about it — but we got a whole lot done, said the former mayor. “And I thought that having a manager who was trained in city administration, and have the council do policy, that that was the way to do it. And I think it worked.”
Wiggins believes to this day that his loss to newcomer Ashton Hayward in 2010, had much to do with his opposition to changing city government. Wiggins was asked looking back, is there anything he wishes could have happened differently or not at all? He went back to his time on the city council, to 2004.
“Hurricane Ivan ripped this city to shreds,” said Wiggins. “We were out of City Hall for so, so long because of all the damage there. But as a city, we reacted to it, and we prevailed. And we came back very, very strong.”
The former mayor also looked back at the federal government’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. One vivid memory is meeting with President Barack Obama at the beach.
“Then he looks over at me and he says, ‘Mr. Mayor, what do you think?’ The leader of the free world just asked me what I thought (laughs). So you know what I did? I told him. I said, ‘Mr. President, we need this amount of funding, we need to be able to make their own decisions insofar as some of these policies go to react to this oil spill, and we need various skimmer ships helping to recover.’”
A few weeks later, Wiggins and other local officials met with the vice president aboard NAS Pensacola. He says that’s when he — a registered Republican — became a “huge Joe Biden fan.” In 2020, Wiggins voted for Biden for president.
“He sat there and listened to us very informally, a small group, and he hit every item, everything we wanted he addressed,” said Wiggins. “I still have the bumper sticker on my car and I’d vote for him again. He was a great vice president, I like his policies, and I think he’s doing a good job.”
Mike Wiggins turns 76 in September, and keeps a toe in the city government waters. He and the other three living former mayors have signed a letter, calling on the further development of Maritime Park — including construction of a parking garage.
“One, because that was the original proposal, two because it was a good proposal, and it will once again increase that ad valorem tax going to the [Community Redevelopment Agency] which will help make even more improvement in the downtown area.”
Wiggins’ time in the Navy and running his landscaping business, he says, were invaluable in helping shape his tenure as mayor.
“I was a local business and I knew Pensacola, I knew so many people because they were either friends or customers of mine,” he said. “I had to balance my own budget. Just the leadership training I got doing that helped, especially when I became mayor.”
In our next installment, we meet a political neophyte who became Pensacola’s first-ever “strong mayor.”