This is Part 1 of our investigation into Panama City’s spending on marketing. Part 2 is here.

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — Despite budget pressures in other areas Panama City has pushed forward with an expensive marketing strategy since Hurricane Michael that has cost $1.5 million in four years.

That spending was with an outside marketing firm called kglobal and represents two rounds of recovery planning following the storm and the coronavirus pandemic. They then spent an astonishing $607,000 on ReHouseBay a program that is supposed to help locals find affordable homes.

“I think one of the things I learned as a senior leader in the Army is the most important thing you can do is communicate,” said Mark McQueen, a former general, and the city’s current city manager. “I realized pretty early after the storm that if we didn’t keep this in the national forefront, that we would become a speck and a forgotten, truly the forgotten coast in terms of recovery.”

McQueen’s connection to the Army brought kglobal into the fold. One of his former co-workers, and an army spokesman recommended kglobal. Later, the city and its hurricane consulting firm selected them to work on marketing after Hurricane Michael.

After he retired from the army, Mcqueen said the co-worker who recommended kglobal went to work for them. However, McQueen insists this connection did not impact the city’s decision to hire them or to keep them on for other projects outside of Hurricane Michael.

And, he repeatedly credited kglobal with keeping Hurricane Michael in the national conversation.

“You can even look at Hurricane Ian as a blip now. And look what it did,” McQueen said. “It was a major storm, it had a lot of damage. I mean, billions of dollars of damage to the peninsula of Florida and up into Georgia, in Canada, and the Carolinas. And nobody’s even talking about that. But yet we’re still talking about Hurricane Michael.”

News 13 spent several weeks trying to determine what the city received for the $1.5 million it spent. Eventually, we were given a list of what the city called key wins.

Those key wins included a Facebook video on rebuilding the city after Hurricane Michael, another video explaining the charrettes that the city called while planning the rebuild, a video urging residents to take part in the census and a website and video for ReHouseBay.

City officials added that this was not an exhaustive list of the work done by the firm.

Other items on the “Key Wins” list included stories in national and local media. In one instance a key win was a story that appeared on News 13 and our website mypanhandle.com. However, that story was not done because of any involvement with kglobal. City leaders said they included it because kglobal was an integral part of the subject of that story: A trip to Washington by local leaders to lobby for money.

To those outside the marketing world, these “Key wins” might look meager. But McQueen insisted that they had a huge impact. Especially when compared to other natural disasters.

“Yeah, I mean, this is amazing. This has been an amazing level of effort to keep it on the entire spectrum of communication. And I have to tell you, they did a brilliant job. I think. I really believe when you look at what they accomplished on behalf of the city it was putting us out there in multiple domains, multiple podcast, traditional media, newspaper articles, magazines, all of those.”

There is obviously no way to measure this kind of impact or really to say as McQueen did several times during our interview, that one community that suffered a natural disaster was treated better by the state and federal government than another community.

“I think keeping it on the national level and the regional level has helped garner over $400 million in grants and loans to be extended to the city for its recovery efforts,” McQueen said. “I look at other communities that have suffered from tragedy across the nation and I don’t see that same level of recovery funding that has been made available.”

News 13 followed up and requested a list of the $400 million in grants and loans from the city. The full list is below.

The second part of our investigation is here.