PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — There’s been a recent shift in the business culture of the City of Panama City that makes a powerful statement — we are not dead.

Twenty years ago, the mall and the area of West 23rd Street was the epicenter of the city, the place where residents went to spend their hard-earned cash.

But then, in 2008, Pier Park opened and a major shift took place. Before too long, stores like Bed Bath and Beyond, World Market, and Pier One were moving from town to the west end of the beach leaving Panama City residents with limited retail options.

After Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, the city was demolished and the Panama City Mall was closed for good after being open for 42 years.

The new Bay City Point located on West 23rd Street

Many wondered what would happen next and if Panama City stood a chance at bouncing back to what it once was — alive and thriving.

City Manager Mark McQueen said the pandemic has certainly cost the city’s revenue to dip in comparison to the last few years, but he also said there is some good news — new businesses are building all over the city.

“The business culture in the City of Panama City has certainly changed and we’ve seen that in some incredible new businesses that have been opened,” said City Manager Mark McQueen. “We’ve got Bay City Point, we’ve got the mall with their new strategic vision for what they are doing.”

Five years ago, Bay City Point was already in the works with plans to bring a new wave of retail and dining options to town. They never anticipated a Cat five hurricane or a global pandemic. But they still don’t regret their decision to build in the area.

Wright Ledbetter, chief operating officer of R.H. Ledbetter Properties said in terms of purchasing the property, their timing couldn’t have been better.

“We know anecdotally that they’d been approached by numerous developers over the years to sell their property and it was never the right time for them,” Ledbetter said. Because of the quality of the location, we had the opportunity to redevelop the entire 35-acre parcel.”

From a revenue standpoint, the city of Panama City is currently going through a decline but that’s only due to the current pandemic.

From 2017 to 2018 the city’s half-cent sales tax went up by 5%. From 2018 to 2019, it increased again by 10%. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that it finally started to fall by 7%.

But Assistant City Manager, Jarad Jones said that Bay County is dealing with the financial storm better than most and that it’s likely due to the booming construction industry.

“The fact of the matter is, even with the pandemic, the construction industry continued, relatively unabated and unfettered,” McQueen said. “I think that helped us to weather a little bit better the effects of the pandemic.”

Chuck Branch, the CEO of NextSite, a marketing company that helps bridge the gap between developers and properties, said his company is heavily invested in the Panama City area. And, just like Ledbetter properties, Nextsite was already advancing in Panama City before the hurricane.

“What I think and what feedback we’ve gotten from developers is the storm was sort of a wake-up call for developers that really hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the Bay County of Panama City area,” Branch said. “They looked at the opportunities that were being presented, properties that in the past might not have been available were suddenly available.”

The new Slim Chickens located on West 23rd Street

Chris McMillian, the franchise owner of Slim Chickens on West 23rd Street said that’s exactly how his restaurant went from a vision to reality.

“23rd street is kind of the heart of Panama City,” McMillian said. “Take Hurricane Michael, after all the devastation and with this community, me personally raising five little girls here, it’s where it needed to be.”

Slim Chickens has proven that, even during a pandemic, Panama City residents love their fried chicken.

“Business has been very good, this store owns the opening day sales record,” McMillian said. “It has stayed steady. Week after week, Panama City has really come through and taken care of this restaurant.”

Even though Slim Chicken’s 23rd Street location was the first in the area, McMillian said it’s certainly not going to be the last. He already owns lots in Lynn Haven and Callaway.

In addition to Slim Chickens, more restaurants are on the rise. Los Rancheros will have their grand reopening soon and sneak peeks of the new building look fresh and pay tribute to the Panama City name.

Sneak peak of Los Rancheros on West 23rd Street

Ledbetter said Bay City Point’s retail development has already done rather well and his company has plans to do more.

“Several of the major retail partners have opened, we’ve got Sketchers, Ulta, and Burlington are all going to be opening from October and the first quarter of 2021,” Ledbetter said. “We are very bullish on Panama City, we are actually already under contract on another property in pursuit of a top-quality multi-family apartment community. So stay tuned.”

Jones said new housing developments will be a major player in the future of the city.

“The Panama City North development, Liberty which is still pushing forward,” Jones said. “That’s a big 1900 single-family home unit. Sweet Bay is still pushing forward and they’re selling out of their available lots right now.”

The future of the former Panama City Mall also includes housing, as well as a hotel, shops, and restaurants.

McQueen said the rebirth of Panama City is mostly thanks to the citizens themselves.

“I think that the new vision for the city and the fact that this has been a citizen-driven process is really driving this level of effort that you are seeing across the entire city,” McQueen said. “It’s not just little pockets changing, the entire city is moving in a very cohesive direction.”

“We want to have a quality of life that really is what knits people together and enriches our lives,” McQueen said. “All of that is embedded in the vision for the City of Panama City.”

What Panama City will be 30 years from now is anyone’s guess, but many are putting their faith in the 32405 zip code. They are standing behind the idea that it’s not dead and that it has a promising future with room to grow and the ability to evolve.