The thousands of college students who descend on Panama City Beach for Spring Break 2013 will be greeted by sun, sand, fun… and enhanced security. On Tuesday, members of the Bay County Tourist Development Council and Convention & Visitors Bureau voted to contribute $100,000 toward making Spring Break more "manageable."
"I think people are going to see a big difference in Spring Break this year," said Mike Thomas, a Bay County commissioner who also serves on the TDC board.
Thomas and PCB Mayor Gayle Oberst headed a task force formed after Spring Break 2012 to investigate ways to minimize disruption without spoiling the party. A community-wide workshop identified a number of critical issues and the city and county governments took steps to ensure their ordinances are in agreement. Law enforcement officials had complained that differences in local laws often caused confusion and frustration in dealing with rowdy behavior and parking issues.
"I think we just have to balance the situation," said Oberst. "We're inconvenienced [but] businesses reap a great deal of money during that period of time… the key is being in control."
In the year since the task force was formed, the city and county passed "Leave No Trace" ordinances to govern tents and other items left on the beach. County commissioners also revised an ordinance to address vehicles parked along the right of way that create public safety hazards.
"It drives a lot of revenue to the beach but it's also important that we make sure that the activities that happen during college spring break don't tarnish our image throughout the year," said Dan Rowe, the TDC's Executive Director. "The brand image of Panama City Beach is very important."
If the county commission approves the expenditure as recommended by the TDC, the money will be split equally between the Bay County Sheriff's Office and Panama City Beach Police Department. State law prohibits the use of tourist tax dollars for general policing, but Rowe said the money will be designated for "special events security" and will therefore promote tourism. "There has to be that linkage for it to be an acceptable use of the bed tax," said Rowe.
Chief Drew Whitman said he will use the funds for a new "Sand Patrol" comprised of up to six officers on all terrain vehicles patrolling the beach during daylight hours. "If you get down there early in the morning when they first start coming out to party… you're a better judge of when you need reinforcements or when you need to disperse the crowd," said Oberst.
Sheriff Frank McKeithen has not announced how the BCSO will use the TDC funds.