Ed. Note: This is the third in a three-part series on the history of college Spring Break.
Part 1: Wild times and crazy money: The history of the Spring Break Capital of the World
Part 2: ‘Mayhem’ How crime and debauchery in Panama City Beach signaled the end of Spring Break
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — Panama City Beach built itself into an economic powerhouse and staked its reputation as being the Spring Break Capital of the World.
But by 2015, a shooting and a movement by law enforcement leaders and some residents forced the city council to enact strict, new laws.
The party was over.
“I know there was a lot of concern at the time about the economics of it,” said Sheriff Tommy Ford. “I felt that it would recover, but I don’t think anybody including myself could have predicted that it would have recovered as fast as it did and we could switch to that family-base.”
Some places hung on for a while, but ultimately got wiped out by Hurricane Michael. Club La Vela, once the beating heart of Spring Break, is once again closed this March.
Long-time business owner Jack Bishop said the impact was immediately felt in 2016.
“I know my restaurant was off 50 percent… 50 percent in March,” Bishop said.
But some leaders say these changes have been for the better.
“The beach will get them here but you need to keep them busy and you needed more than we had at the time,” Mike Thomas, a beach business owner and the town’s former mayor, said.
As proof of their success, leaders point to Pier Park and the growth around it, which has become a major attraction for families in March.
“Even though it was a long painful process and there were hurt feelings along the way, there was anger from both sides of the coin, I am pleased that I think most people have recognized in retrospect how bad it was and how good it can be,” Ford said. “Much more profitable and less destructive.”
The bed tax numbers for Panama City Beach seem to prove this. News 13 pulled the numbers from every March in the last 15 years. They’re a good indicator of business activity on the beach during the month.
2021 was the biggest year the city ever had.
Current Panama City Beach Mayor Mark Sheldon said the city has no intention of going back.
“Understand, Panama City Beach is a family-friendly destination,” Sheldon said. “We’ve worked hard to get there, so be forewarned, do not come to Panama City Beach to cause trouble. … The city will not go back to the rowdy days of the past.”