PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — The nightlife in Panama City’s historic downtown used to consist of empty streets and sleepy evenings.
The monotony was only broken by the occasional event hosted by the Downtown Improvement Board. Visitors to those events would often note that it was fun to be downtown at night but it was strange because almost everything was closed. Food, drinks, and music would come via food trucks and temporary stages.
That atmosphere has radically changed over the last few months as downtown mainstay The Place, was joined by House of Henry, History Class, and The Funky Mermaid. Where once a nighttime visitor could do donuts on Harrison Avenue now, for the first time, visitors might have trouble finding a parking spot.
“We’re seeing property owners actually pouring money back into their businesses to make them a viable entity,” said City Manager Mark McQueen.
This growth is all part of the plan but there is still much to be done, McQueen added.
About a year ago the city pulled residents and business leaders into a series of charrettes in hopes of getting the community to buy into a new vision for the downtown area and the Panama City Marina. Decades of attempts at a massive redevelopment had failed but the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael offered a chance at a fresh start.
Downtown was going to be rebuilt, the only question would be who’s vision would it represent. The city hoped the charrettes would lead to a community that would believe in and support a new vision for downtown.
Meanwhile, City officials and The St. Joe Company, one of the biggest developers in Florida with a home office in Bay County, have an agreement to build a large waterfront facility. The plans call for a five-story hotel, a restaurant, an “event lawn,” a sky bar, and new parking along the Bay. Jorge Gonzalez, the president and CEO of the St. Joe Company, said the project will be privately funded and the restaurant and hotel will enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with the city.
If it is completed, the project will be one of the biggest steps along the way to a new downtown. However, one hotel and restaurant, is not the end all and be all of the revitalization.
Gonzalez said his company studied plenty of downtown revitalization projects as they worked on plans for downtown Panama City. What they saw was that the massive plans tended to whither for lack of investment.
“The successful downtowns, the downtowns that have been able to turn the tide around to change the trajectory really they’ve all done it incrementally,” Gonzalez told the Bay Economic Development Alliance earlier this month. “They’ve all done it piece by piece.”
THE NEXT PIECE
The new nightlife, the hotel and restaurant will be joined by a rebuilt marina and a civic center. However, those projects are still in the planning phases. The city is waiting on FEMA to determine if the current civic center will be repaired or replaced.
“We are absolutely committed to having a civic center in historic downtown,” McQueen said.
But a key part of the plan isn’t an investment from city leaders or developers, it’s coming from the arts community.
Under the direction of Jayson Kretzer, the executive director Bay Arts Alliance, the city is adding murals to area buildings and bringing patrons to Panama City’s Center for the Arts.
A vital arts scene was a major point of the Dover plan.
“I feel like there is a really unified plan taking shape,” Kretzer said. “The city is doing their part. The business owners are doing their part. I think we’re coming together and we’re getting to somewhere special.”
Though it may not be there yet, business investment, art investment and investment from the city is yielding fruit, McQueen said.
“What this is doing is really creating a catalyst for redevelopment of our historic downtown,” he added. “The Martin Theatre is under construction even as we speak.”
Part of what doomed previous downtown plans was a city that seemed timid to ever take action. Consultants came and went. Developers showed up and were shouted down. But, this time, to hear McQueen tell it, the work is happening here and now.
“We’re a year to 18 months away from having the marina complete,” McQueen said.
Construction on streetscapes and a multi-use walkway that will surround the waterfront is expected to begin early next year.
“We want to take away all those barriers that normally come in the way of an investor or a developer of trying to invest in this community,” McQueen said.
To McQueen that means planning and zoning rules that make sense, and an infrastructure that works. Unfortunately, the city’s infrastructure is 80 years old and coming apart at the seams.
The city frequently deals with sewer leaks and water issues. McQueen said he has heard from resident in the Cove area who call their neighbors to make sure only one of them are doing the laundry at a time. If everyone is using a washing machine at the same time the city’s water pressure won’t be strong enough, he said.
The city is looking for state and federal funding to overhaul its infrastructure and not just in downtown but city-wide. However, the cost will be hundreds of millions dollars.
“We can do better,” McQueen said. “It’s just going to take an investment.”
Meanwhile, the city officials hope to replicate the revitalization they see in downtown in other parts of town. Charrettes are currently taking place in Millville, Glenwood and St. Andrews.