Kempner: Evicting spring break was the easy part for Panama City Beach

One of Florida’s most popular beach hot spots is learning how hard it is to kill its reputation as a college and high school spring break guzzle-a-thon and replace it with something safer.

Panama City Beach locals this year thought they found a fresh way to woo Atlantans and others from around the nation to the amazing powdery white sand: three weekends packed with Christian music concerts.

A promoter for RoadTrip Spring Break 2017 promised each would be “a 4-day beach party for 18 to 25-year-olds, where Christians from coast-to-coast gather to redefine spring break.”

Didn’t happen that way.

Ticket sales bombed, according to a woman who built convention space with the events in mind. The March concerts were canned.

“Unfortunately, we put the words ‘spring break’ in our advertisements,” said Clair Pease. “We should have never used those words.”

Parents probably nixed the idea after finding online accounts of past spring break, said Pease. She owns an impressive string of local tourism-connected businesses: rental services for high-rise condos, condo management, a charter boat, commercial laundry, construction firm and house-keeping labor supplier. She’s still mourning the lost concert opportunity.

“It could have been so good …We’ve got to do something good in Panama City.”

PCB (aka PC), a traditional playground for metro Atlanta, is still searching for ways to financially rebuild one of its busiest periods of the year after it pretty much kicked out college spring breakers, one of the hardiest customer bases it ever had.

It’s a lesson for any community or business owner faced with the task of reforming an image shaped by rowdy customers.

A serene spring so far

March is supposed to be a hot period for PCB. But on a recent run through town I didn’t notice a single “no vacancy” sign on hotels though room rates were low. Sure, I spied a few guys shotgunning beer in a secluded spot and saw partying crowds at big beach clubs. Mostly, though, PCB seemed serene.

Still to be seen is how much that mood shift will curtail visiting high schoolers, who some PCBers told me were among the worst hellions of past spring breaks. (Most metro Atlanta public schools go on break the first full week of April, which means the hunt is on for vacation spots.)

“Nobody comes here anymore,” said Autumn Williams, a disappointed looking Georgia Southern University student.

It didn’t help that she was seeing “crazy” Snapchat images posted by friends on spring break in Miami and Cancun. Apparently those places, plus Fort Lauderdale and South Padre Island in Texas, are drawing some of the crowds PCB no longer wants, according to spring breakers I spoke with.

For decades, Georgians have flooded PCB at this time of year. I’ve often been among them, searching for the perfect mix: affordable hotels, space to build a sand chair and less pretension than places farther west along Florida’s 30A.

You just had to accept PCB’s noise and disheveled vibe. If Seaside was a white-robed beach, PC was the cousin in jean cutoffs. Both got the job done.

‘Someone threw a blender’

PCB was well along the way to making its own transition, though. Big high-rise condos and fancier tourist destinations replaced lots of mom and pop operations. But during spring break in recent years, the mood got out of hand, even for people who made money off it. Crime spiked. National media outlets took notice. Locals complained about unruly college kids, uncouth high schoolers and “100 milers” who swept in from nearby communities, sometimes with ill intentions.

“It was a nightmare,” said Heather Lopez, a local waitress who has lived in the area for 20 years. “Someone threw a blender off a balcony and it landed near my six year old.”

Local officials finally had enough. They banned alcohol on public beaches in the month of March, cut bar hours, forbid gatherings in parking lots of closed businesses. More important, they spread the word that PCB would be a spring break buzz kill. Lots of officers and police dogs were stationed near prime party spots.

It worked. Rental bookings sank 40 percent in March 2016 compared to the year before. Arrests logged by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in beach zones fell by more than half. Hotel operators, scooter rental shops, condo rentals and restaurants saw business plummet. Service workers took home less pay.

Lopez worked lots of double shifts but still ended up down $3,000 for the year.

That’s OK, she told me. “To keep everybody safe, I think the ban needs to stay in place.”

Local officials don’t show signs of easing up. University of Kentucky student Brianna Luther was walking along the beach carrying a brown drink in a plastic cup. She was stopped twice by officers in less than 100 yards.

Just Dr. Pepper, she said. I saw one officer sniff to make sure.

Next year, Luther told me, “I’m going to Miami or Fort Lauderdale.”

Rates fall, ironically

Condo bookings for this March continue to fall, Pease told me. So do rates. Two years ago, she could get $369 for an average peak March night in a two-bedroom condo at the Grand Panama Beach Resort. Now they go for $167. (That’s an ironic development for community leaders who had hoped the crackdown on partyers would help PCB attract a more upscale crowd.)

There are plenty of bright spots, though. Visitors – including many families — swarmed to PCB in even greater numbers last summer. November visits also grew nicely. As a result, bookings for the year were down less than one percent.

PCB area tourism officials have added events, including a car show, a boat show, Unwined (an event that highlights music and wine, craft beer and spirits tastings) and a concert weekend in late April with Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker.

They’ve also spent $1 million specifically marketing for Spring Break visitors, particularly for older visitors and families with kids.

David Demarest, a spokesman for Visit Panama City Beach, isn’t predicting an immediate wave of giant wholesome crowds, though. “In the next few years, I don’t think March will be the numbers (month) it was.”

It might be longer than that.

“The most resilient customer we ever had was the spring breaker,” said Jack Bishop, who owns local restaurants. “They didn’t care if it was 30 degrees. You will never replace that with family spring breakers or empty nesters.”

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