PANAMA CITY BEACH — I watched another college-aged kid being carted off in handcuffs only a couple hours after I arrived here. And that was before sunset.
By the time I left two days later, a 20-year-old from Indiana was dead after apparently falling from a parking garage. Friends said he had been drinking heavily earlier in the day, according to police quoted by the local newspaper.
One of his last tweets was “I’m in pcb dowg.”
But this is actually a far calmer version of college spring break in Panama City Beach.
PCB has yanked the beer funnel from the beak of its golden goose.
That’s not easy for a community built on making money serving outsiders to crack down on some of those same people.
It’s mostly college kids in town now, but high school spring break — fed heavily by metro Atlanta — starts soon. The sandy strip that made its name with generations of Atlantans has also become synonymous with spring break debauchery for a much wider area, from the Northeast, throughout the South and over to the Midwest.
Last spring break got out of hand, however, with a shooting that injured seven people and an alleged video-taped sexual assault on the beach, not to mention mayhem and mounds of trash left behind by visitors. The yuck showed up on social media and national news. So PCB leaders have done the unthinkable: They’ve tried to put the kibosh on college kids hankering for a massively wild time.
They’ve banned alcohol on the beach for the month of March. (Update: Gulf Shores in Alabama recently took a similar step.) They’ve curbed how late bars can serve drinks. And they’ve stationed lots of law enforcement officers – some with dogs – all over, including directly outside entrances to one of the beach’s hottest clubs. What before might have been handled with a citation now gets you handcuffed and jailed until you can make arrangements. (A group of girls took to Snapchat to raise bail money for a friend busted during spring break.)
The result is pretty predictable: The wave of college students that usually swarms PCB this time of the year is way down. Spring Break revenue could be off by at least 40 percent compared to last year, according to some estimates. That’s potentially 40 percent less in tips for wait staff, 40 percent less work for hotel cleaning crews and 40 percent less revenue for business owners this month, which ultimately cuts into local government money.
That’s sparked community debate, including protest rallies from workers dependent on spring break business and a lawsuit brought against the city by three big beach-front businesses. (The suit was recently dropped.)
The big question: At some point is the business just not worth the trouble?
Of course, the answer is “yes.” But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy decision, especially when livelihoods are involved.
Other communities have wrestled with similar issues.
PCB’s rise as a spring break bacchanalia followed a decision by Fort Lauderdale and, then, Daytona Beach, to crack down on their own springtime revelers.
I remember when Atlanta officials essentially stomped out Freaknik, which had devolved from a cool gathering that attracted African-American college kids and recent graduates into a traffic-jamming, sometimes-scary free-for-all.
In PCB, there has long been pressure to put more controls in place.
Last year, my wife and I were there for a couple days with our daughter and a friend during high school spring break. Much of the beach was delightful. But on the sand behind a big Holiday Inn, we witnessed what apparently were high school kids doing pretty much anything they wanted. I didn’t feel comfortable walking through that crowd, and not just because I didn’t want to look like some pervy older guy.
(The city’s new rules are aimed primarily at the period when college students are on break, rather than much of the traditional high school vacation. We’ll see if that lasts.)
On my visit this month, during the college season, PCB still had a few crowds.
We saw a couple of arrests. We overheard students talking about a place that would serve cheap, all-they-could drink booze. We woke up to students partying in a hotel hallway after the bars had closed. We saw surprisingly clean beaches (though I did spot a bra in the sand near one bar). And, of course, another beachfront club had a climbing wall serving as a giant advertisement for a condom company. Classy.
With all that hoopla, it’s hard to remember there’s a beautiful ocean a few yards away on the other side of the sand.
Dan Rowe, who heads Visit Panama City Beach, the local tourism organization, told me “this transition will get us back to being a great beach destination instead of a spring break destination.”
Georgia is the biggest source of visitors to the beaches, according to Rowe. And PCB wants more of us.
But he and others worry that his community’s spring break image keeps away some visitors they want. Like the people who instead head to Hilton Head or Destin or that froufrou strip along Florida’s Scenic Highway 30-A, which by the way is just so adorable that there are car stickers with the 30-A logo. (I know this because my family has one, and it horrifies me.)
Cegea Samples, a waitress at a local restaurant, told me spring break last year was so bad she was afraid to walk to her car at night. She had refused to take her young daughter to the beach during March. That is, until this year.
“I’m pretty sure my pockets will hurt for it,” she said of the recent city action. “But I would rather take the hurt from spring break and get the families” later.
Jordan Lee, a college senior, told me several of his friends didn’t join him on the trek from Ohio this year because of the stepped-up policing.
“When I came down here last year it was a lot more fun,” Lee said.
Places like South Padre Island in Texas and Orange Beach in Alabama may pick up some of the college traffic that might otherwise have headed to PCB. And locals here may have trouble filling the hole in March. But the spring cleaning image could pay off in the rest of the year.
Just one request, PCB: Don’t scrub too hard. Safety is a great thing. Uptight is not.
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