Since 1974, the Panama City Downtown Improvement board has been responsible for promoting and developing the downtown Panama City area.
For most of the last 4 decades, that's included everything from advertising, planning events, recruiting businesses and just about anything else associated with helping the area succeed.
However, times have changed and some now wonder if the DIB has outlived its usefulness, to be replaced by other organizations with 3-letter acronyms—what some are calling, alphabet soup.
The organization has typically always had a steady income, with a lack of direction for many years.
In 1974, the Florida legislature passed a bill creating the Panama City Downtown Improvement Board, and funded it with a 3-mill property tax on downtown business owners.
The timing couldn't have been better, or worse—depending on your perspective. The Panama City mall opened in the summer of 1976, taking away many of downtown's landmark stores like Sears and JC Penney.
The DIB’s priority then became filling the void left by the departing retailers. Over the years that's included everything from professional office spaces, more non-traditional retail stores, even entertainment venues.
You can still see survivors of those ideas, but none were able to transform downtown. That's the landscape the DIB has had to navigate all these years. While the organization is concerned with the overall success of the area, it has one primary responsibility.
"The purpose of the DIB is actually to promote downtown,” said Destination Panama City CEO, Jennifer Vigil.
Some would argue the DIB has been a successful promoter, by staging events, like the 4th of July fireworks, the old downtown Mardi Gras, and Friday Fest.
"For many, many years, the DIB has run their own events and when I say run the event I mean feet on the ground, marking off spaces for vendors,” said Panama City Commissioner John Kady.
In fact, the majority of the DIB's $300,000 budget last year funded special events. But, some of those events are not as popular as they used to be, and some downtown business owners aren't satisfied with the DIB’s recent performance.
"I can see the disappointment that people feel. I've felt that frustration also,” said Kady.
In addition to that, some relatively new organizations have taken over some of the DIB’s old responsibilities to the downtown area.
"Collaboratively with the city and the CDC and the CRA is to relieve them of some of those burdens going forward,” said Kady.
And that's made the DIB’s role a lot less defined. After many meetings and discussions with the various organizations, city leaders have decided that the City of Panama City recruits businesses to the downtown area. The CRA, or Community Redevelopment Agency, focuses on downtown infrastructure improvements.
And the CDC, also known as Destination Panama City, is now successfully marketing Panama City to out of town markets.
"The CDC is really designed more for marketing. And it's designed for marketing for people that are going to be spending the night in Panama City hotels, and those kind of events that produce tourism,” said Panama City, City Manager Jeff Brown.
Supporters say that leaves the DIB with the important mission of raising awareness of downtown as a retail business and residential destination.
"What we're looking for the DIB to do at this point, and what I think they can do that's unique from the beach and a lot of other organizations, is create and awareness of downtown as a destination for business and for entertainment and for residential activity, locally,” said Kady.
"Economic improvement, how we can start to encourage businesses to look at doing loft living upstairs from the businesses. Having contracts with other agencies leaves us available to start working on those areas that we feel really need growth,” said DIB Board Member Liane Harding.
Although it's still too early to predict the DIB’s future, the organization is hoping their recent efforts to work collaboratively with other city groups will be their key to success.
The DIB is still looking for an executive director after the board cut ties with John Carbullido in June.
Right now, Destination Panama City CEO Jennifer Vigil is running the DIB. She presented a new branding campaign to DIB board members for the downtown district, which they all unanimously passed. The campaign is called "A Return to Harrison," it's supposed to unite downtown businesses and get more people to visit the area.
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