Carving Out a Scenic Legacy in Florida and Beyond
When Bill Jonson paid his first visit to his current hometown of Clearwater, Florida, he was immediately struck by the clutter along the highways that greeted his arrival. The Wisconsin native had just flown into Tampa to explore the possibility of relocating to central Florida to further his career with Honeywell.
“We left the airport and turned left onto Highway 19. There were billboards, pennants, banners, portable signs with letters missing, and flashing arrows everywhere,” he recalled. “When I commented on it to my future boss, he said, ‘If you move here, you can help fix it.’”
And that’s exactly what happened. For more than three decades, Bill has played a leading role in scenic conservation work in Florida and across the country, both as a co-founder and longtime president of Citizens for a Scenic Florida and as treasurer of Scenic America’s board of directors—a position he has held for more than 15 years.
Bill’s interest in scenic issues emerged over the course of his life. He grew up outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, then moved to Des Moines, Iowa, to study accounting at Drake University. After graduating, he worked near Chicago for a couple of years before being drafted to the Army, where he served first in Texas and later in Thailand.
After leaving the Army, he studied at the University of Minnesota then landed an auditing position at Honeywell in Minneapolis. As he advanced with Honeywell, he accepted the job that had first introduced him to Florida’s billboards and moved to Clearwater in 1984.
Bill soon learned that he wasn’t the only person in Clearwater concerned about the abundance of signage. About two years after his move, he learned that Clearwater city officials had taken up a signage code issue to remedy some of the billboard blight that was growing unchecked.
“I watched from the cheap seats while they adopted new sign codes. The new codes removed billboards from the city, but not from Gulf to Bay Boulevard the main roadway into Clearwater coming from the airport. An attorney had convinced the city council that this stretch was protected by the Highway Beautification Act. When we determined that this was not correct, we started a citizens’ initiative to change the ordinance,” he said.
Taking action, he founded Citizens for a Better Clearwater in 1988 to tackle this issue, generating some 6,000 signatures from concerned residents. This effort prompted the city council to enact a phase out the billboard clutter on that entrance to the City that first caught Bill’s attention.
Despite the victory, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Pressured by outdoor advertising companies, the Florida state legislature later tried to overturn this ruling. To strengthen their position in the fight, Bill joined forces with billboard law expert Bill Brinton to form a statewide organization, Citizens for a Scenic Florida, which he continues to lead more than two decades later.
As president of Scenic Florida, Bill (Jonson) was appointed to sit on a committee with the Florida House of Representatives to tighten up billboard regulations.
Because of his leadership role with Scenic America, Bill was appointed to the committee that would develop the Florida Scenic Highways Program. Among his first targets for scenic byway designation was the Courtney Campbell Causeway—the very stretch of highway that caught his attention on his first visit to Florida. When the byway designation was secured, Bill and other local officials tapped into federal enhancement funding to create a multipurpose trail going across the causeway, which has become an extremely popular destination for outdoors enthusiasts exploring the Tampa Bay area.
Bill’s activism on the local stage extends beyond scenic issues. After retiring from Honeywell, he was elected to the Clearwater City Council in 2001, where he served for two terms over 14 non-consecutive years before recently stepping aside. He is currently president of his local chapter of the League of Women Voters. He continues to live in Clearwater in the same house that he first moved to in 1984. Bill and his wife together have five children and seven grandchildren.
Looking ahead, Bill sees challenges and opportunities for both Scenic Florida and Scenic America. “We need to go through a reevaluation of Scenic Florida’s mission and priorities. The legislature is willy-nilly overturning home rule on many of our issues.” On the national front, Bill notes Scenic America’s success in making significant progress on national legislation and acknowledges the need for ongoing work supporting local communities.
“There are going to be battles that pop up in cities around the country and we need to provide some expertise to those folks. That’s our first priority. But we also have to provide education on the real importance of the attractiveness of communities, especially from an economic development standpoint. Beauty is good for business and for the soul of communities.”