Now that Spring Break 2013 is over, Panama City Beach tourism officials are once again debating how to prevent a month-long party from staining a year-round industry. The debate heated up at Tuesday's combined board meeting of the Bay County Tourist Development Council and Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Students are back in class, but it's the lack of class displayed by some spring breakers – and the type of entertainment targeting them – that has county commissioner Mike Thomas riled up. "People talk to me all the time... they're not satisfied with what's happening here," said Thomas, a business owner who also serves on the TDC board.
Thomas was an active participant in an effort that began after the 2012 event that led to new ordinances, enhanced law enforcement and a community-wide focus on keeping the party under control. "We did a lot last year to control it some and we need to continue to do more," he said.
Thomas sparked a lengthy TDC/CVB discussion about this year's spring break and said misbehavior threatens to put a black mark on the beach's reputation. "We need to expect the same sort of activities and the same sort of behavior in March that we expect in June and July during our family times," said Thomas. "We can't expand that part of it until we clean that other up."
"A lot of what he said is true... spring break is changing because the kids are changing," said Mike Bennett, a business owner who also serves on the TDC board. "Our job as the TDC and as the city is to control it [and] to advertise it in a manner that is positive."
"It's a better beach today than it was a year ago in terms of management of spring break," said Dan Rowe, TDC Executive Director. "The work is not done… there are additional things that the community can do, the TDC can do, the business community can do and the local governments can do to help continue to improve."
Special events, including a recent free concert at Spinnaker Beach Club, drew sharp criticism. Bill Buskell, owner of Pineapple Willie's, told the board free concerts draw crowds that stretch law enforcement resources, inhibit emergency response efforts and leave trash on the beach.
Commissioner Thomas said it's that "undesirable" element that he wants to send somewhere else. "A lot of the problems we have are people that aren't here on vacation, they're just here," said Thomas. "They're here to feed off other people... they're just walking the roads, grouping up and causing problems."
Contacted after the meeting, the owner of Spinnaker Beach Club said the crowd his business attracts is not the one causing problems. "Compared to some spring breaks, I thought this was one of the better ones we've had in quite a while," said Sparky Sparkman. "Spring break happens to be a whole different animal than we have during the summer months but it's still vitally important to us economically."
Thomas said he plans to meet with club owners and seek their cooperation in addressing his concerns. "If not, I'm sure the city and the county will sit down and look at some more rules," said Thomas.
Bennett said he welcomes the dialogue. "I invite it, I think it's good for us," he said. "We need to have a sit down and talk about the things that are good about spring break that we've done well [and] talk about the things we can do better."
"Public officials have to be involved and we have to work with them," agreed Sparkman. "It's some give and some take... that's how you solve the problem and I'm all for that."
Commissioner Thomas sees his hard line approach as a way to meet the expectations of the community. "By spring next year, Panama City Beach is not a place that you're going to act up in," he said.