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SPECIAL REPORT: Rebuilding Bay

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The devastation from Hurricane Michael was unbelievable and months later, residents are still feeling the impacts of the storm. 

Although the storm caused significant damage to the entire Panhandle, Panama City leaders refuse to see this as a setback. 

“There’s a lot of beautiful areas and property that’s waterfront here in our community, that can really set the stage for some great future growth,” said Panama City Mayor, Greg Brudnicki. 

Mayor Brudnicki said they now have a blank slate, and once debris is removed, they can begin the rebuilding process. 

“A lot of the demolition has already been done within the city to go ahead and do things in the future that we would have eventually had to have done and paid for the demolition but now all we have to do is pick it up,” said Brudnicki.

Downtown business owners also see this as a chance to enhance the community. “We have an opportunity to really make this amazing. You know, there’s just a lot of opportunity,” said Owner of Mainstreet Antiques, Liane Harding. 

Harding is not only a downtown business owner, but also a board member on the Downtown Improvement Board. She said the board along with its partners, are also working around the clock to help expedite the recovery process.

“The CRA has funds available as grant money so its basically giving people money to fix the facades of their buildings and to do new signage. Their doing a 50/50 matched action grant and then the DIB for good measure anybody who gets approved by the CRA, the DIB is giving them an additional $500,” said Harding.

Mayor Brudnicki said this isn’t just a chance to rebuild, but a chance to enhance local economy. He plans to introduce ‘opportunity zones’ that would encourage outside investors to put money into the area.

“They can take that money and reinvest it into this opportunity zone and defer that gain. So it gives them a chance to get more of a return and more of an incentive to sell the stock because they know they don’t need to write a 20-25% tax check and they can reinvest that into another project. That’s good for us, and that’s good for the investor,” Brudnicki said.

Other business owners and residents understand this is a tough change, but a necessary change to move on and create a better future. 

“I don’t want people to give up, that’s the biggest thing. You know, hang in there and just move forward,” said Owner of LH Bead Gallery, Lisa Hanna. 

In order to move forward, city leaders have created a framework to act as a guideline for the future of the city. The document was created just a few weeks after the storm and can be found here. City Manager of Panama City, Mark McQueen, was one of the few involved in creating the draft. 

“Post storm, the mayor and I and a couple others from the community got together and we were in a tent and we were trying to figure out where we needed to go and where the city needed to go in the future. So as a result of that, we began drafting our guiding principles in a framework in which we could rebuild the community because we knew it was fundamentally going to have to be rebuilt,” said McQueen.

“In a resource un-constrained environment, what would we love to see happen for our community,” said McQueen. To answer that question, McQueen went on to talk about improvements in electrical, sewage, housing and the overall economy… all of which are briefly highlighted in the document. 

However, the Mayor and his collegues said they refuse to let this become a ‘closed-door process’. Officials said they encourage community participation when it comes to developing a future for the city. 

“We’re going to have town halls for people to come in and we’ll start looking at this framework and things that we’re going to do, same thing with the marina. We will have people or a facilitator that will be able to take people’s ideas and let them speak their peace,” Brudnicki said. 

One question that was ever-present before the storm regarded the future of the marina. Now, post-hurricane, many wonder what’s next its future. 

“Number 1, we know we’re going to do something nice with the marina. We’re still vetting a process and we’re still talking with St. Joe about them coming in and putting in a hotel and they’re still very interested. So that’s the first step to creating something on the marina that everybody is going to be proud of,” said Brudnicki. 

While the framework has been laid, there’s still plenty of work to get done before it becomes a reality. 

“We have as much debris in our county, as Irma had in over 50 counties. So when you have that concentration and that small footprint, it takes a lot of time to get it done and we can’t start the economic engine until all of that stuff is out of the way. We’re working feverishly to get it gone and make sure everything is running,” Brudnicki said. 

While the city waits for the debris removal process to be completed, other jobs are underway. One thing that’s always been important to Panama City has been retaining the status of ‘Tree City USA’, but since the storm took out majority of the trees, it will be harder to achieve that goal. 

City leaders said the replanting process has already begun. 

“The landscape has changed forever but we have an opportunity to change the future of what that will look like and our goal was to have 100,000 new trees planted between now and 2025, and that’s already started,” said McQueen. 

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