Panama City Beach's Facelift

Front Beach Road is the artery that feeds the heart of tourism in Panama City Beach, and now it is undergoing a procedure that should dramatically improve the health of the vacation town.

Front Beach Makeover From party strip to upscale vacation spot, Panama City Beach’s Front Beach Road will evolve into a new era in beachside fun, if locals have anything to say about it By Tony Bridges Originally published in the Apr/May 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine

Front Beach Road is the artery that feeds the heart of tourism in Panama City Beach, and now it is undergoing a procedure that should dramatically improve the health of the vacation town.

Over the years, the road along Panama City Beach’s most valuable commodity — miles of white sand beaches — has grown choked by traffic, turning what should be a pleasant, breezy drive into a stop-and-go experience that frustrates visitors and isn’t always safe for pedestrians. Not to mention numerous potholes, unsightly power lines and the occasional overgrown vacant lot.

That’s why the road was designated a Community Redevelopment Area, paving the way for cosmetic and infrastructure improvements that began with the Pier Park shopping mall and is expected to conclude with a much wider, better-looking Front Beach Road.

The hope is that the changes will help boost the ongoing transformation of Panama City Beach from an aging beach town into an upscale family vacation destination like nearby Destin.

“Once this roadway is completed, businesses should thrive with this new accessibility and revitalization,” said Mario Gisbert, assistant Panama City Beach city manager and director of the Front Beach Road Community Redevelopment Area.


“Blight” in a Vacation Town

The Front Beach Road makeover project is a 30-year plan that started in 2001 with a decision to classify Thomas Drive/Front Beach Road as a “blighted” area. This was the first step required by the state to create a Community Redevelopment Area.

Blight typically brings to mind images of trash-filled streets and rows of abandoned buildings with broken windows and graffiti-stained walls. But, in this case, it was the traffic that was fast outgrowing the city’s infrastructure — more than 3 million vehicles a year for a road built for pre-World War II traffic.

“As we revitalize Front Beach Road, we’re doing it to fix traffic issues,” Gisbert said. “That’s the blight.”

Time, weather and all those cars have taken a serious toll on Front Beach. Bone-rattling potholes are common, particularly in the heavily traveled eastern end around Thomas Drive. The lower-lying stretches flood frequently due to inadequate drainage. And, in some places, such as near Nautilus Street, the narrow road seems barely wide enough for oncoming traffic due to the crumbling shoulders, lack of curbs and prevalence of roadside parking.

During the peak tourist season, from March through August, driving on Front Beach is a marathon affair, sometimbay-frontbeach-renderinges taking 20 minutes or more to travel just a couple miles. Both the eastbound and westbound lanes fill up with traffic because there are few turn lanes. Vehicles trying to make left turns into parking lots form frequent roadblocks. Add to the already clogged road the fact that many drivers are simultaneously trying to get a glimpse of the Gulf, check out the various roadside tourist businesses and watch for pedestrians, and it equals gridlock.

Travel guide “Fodor’s Essential South” described it this way: “Invasive growth has turned the main thoroughfare, Front Beach Road, into a dense mass of traffic…When navigating Panama City Beach by car, don’t limit yourself to Front Beach Road — the stop-and-go traffic will drive you nuts.”

But traffic flow isn’t the only problem. With few sidewalks, pedestrians often are forced to walk close to the road. Several people die each year from being struck by vehicles on Front Beach. Pedestrians are especially vulnerable at night when it is more difficult to see and drivers and pedestrians are more likely to have been drinking.

Among those killed or injured in recent years: a 53-year-old woman trying to cross the road near 2nd Street, a 39-year-old Georgia woman hit by a motorcycle and numerous young spring breakers struck near bars and condos.

As one poster on the Virtual Tourist website warned: “Mostly it is a tedious, creeping drive from one end of the beach to the other, especially around the strip. To compound this problem, you will also have to watch out for every drunken college kid … who is likely to dart in front of your vehicle.”

Not exactly the kind of endorsement that encourages new visitors.


CRA Brings Infusion of Dollars, Construction

The diagnosis of blight was exactly what Front Beach Road needed because it allowed for the use of “tax increment financing.” That meant the county’s share of annual property taxes was frozen at 2002 property values, while taxes on any value above 2002 figures would go to the Community Redevelopment Area for use on Front Beach Road. In other words, as property values increase, so does the CRA’s budget for making improvements.

Gisbert, the CRA director, said the rough cost estimate for the first half of the improvement project — spanning from 2002 to 2015 — is about $100 million. So far, the CRA has spent about $54 million, he said.

So, what has that bought?

One of the most visible examples is the complete transformation of Beckrich Road. What once was a narrow feeder road between Back Beach and Front Beach roads is now a spacious, divided promenade with sidewalks and old-fashioned street lamps and a median lined with palm trees.

It was renamed Richard Jackson Boulevard in recognition of Panama City Beach’s current city manager.

“You just feel like you’re in a Florida beach community,” said Tourist Development Council Executive Director Dan Rowe of the newly revitalized road. This project “is going to fundamentally change the look and feel of the main tourist corridor for Panama City Beach.”

Similar work was completed on Churchwell and South Thomas drives.

According to Gisbert, the work on Jackson “just scratches the surface” of what is coming for Front Beach.

All of the improvements are welcome news to Michael Greer, vice president of operations for Royal American Hospitality. His company owns and manages Boardwalk Beach Resort. Boardwalk controls about 2,000 feet of beachfront along South Thomas Drive.

“We have a fairly decent amount of skin in the game,” Greer said.

He said the South Thomas district has been a premier destination in the Panhandle for a long time and “it’s more than deserving of a facelift. At the end, I think it’s going to be absolutely great.”


The New Front Beach Road

Long-time visitors eventually won’t recognize Front Beach Road.

The idea for addressing the traffic issues is two-fold: One, improve flow by widening the road, adding turn lanes and building out the side roads. Two, lessen the overall burden by adding lanes for pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation.

At the same time, the construction provides an opportunity for the Community Redevelopment Area to make other enhancements, including moving power lines underground, improving the drainage system and adding landscaping. The CRA also is working with Bay County to extend fiber optic lines to Back Beach (Highway 98), Middle Beach and Front Beach roads so traffic lights can be connected to a control hub and synchronized.

The entire project, when completed, is expected to cover Front Beach Road from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum to just west of Highway 79, as well as part of South Thomas.

“It’s taking (Highway) 98, which was basically a rural, country road and bringing it into the 21st century,” Gisbert said.

Among the other new features expected from the redevelopment:

  • Two stormwater retention ponds that will be landscaped into parks with benches, fountains and decorative walkways. One will be located between McDonald’s and a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The other is planned for the current site of the Burger King on Front Beach Road, which likely will move to a new location nearby, Gisbert said.
  • A redesigned intersection at Front and Middle Beach roads, in front of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museum. The intersection will have new traffic lights, be more accommodating to pedestrians and include a “Welcome to Panama City Beach” sign.
  • Two parking garages located on the east and west ends of the beach. The garages will offer restrooms and connections to public transportation, such as the Bay Town Trolley.


Gisbert said he envisions a Panama City Beach where “you can drive up, park your car and not have to get in your car again.” He expects future visitors to leave their cars at their condos or in one of the two new parking garages and walk along Front Beach or ride the tram to stores, restaurants and attractions.

But Greer, from Boardwalk, isn’t sold on that idea.

While the CRA holds public meetings twice a year to seek input on its plans and works closely with local businesses affected by the development, including Boardwalk, one point of contention remains. Greer said the Front Beach Road development does not adequately address parking.

He argues that the beach is too spread out to become a true walking community, as the CRA wants. He said pedestrians aren’t interested in traveling from Pineapple Willy’s to Pier Park.

Greer said he would rather see some of the space in the plans currently dedicated to bicycle lanes and tram lanes used for roadside parking, instead. As for the planned “multi-modal” centers, they are still years out from completion and too far from the South Thomas Drive area, he said.


Depends on the Economy

Of course, none of this is going to happen overnight and much of it is tied to increases in property values — which haven’t been faring well lately.

Gisbert said the CRA’s annual budget peaked at $10 million in 2008, but has since dropped to about $7 million a year as the economy has slumped, dragging property values down.

When work was booming, engineering firm DRMP managed the project, but since the slowdown the city of Panama City Beach has taken over management.

Now, “the economy has to pick up before we can do a whole lot of anything,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gisbert said he recognizes that ongoing construction can be tough on local businesses dealing with torn-up roads and limited access.

“There’s going to be a benefit at the end of the project, but there’s definitely a hardship during the project if you’re in the effected area,” he said.

So far, it hasn’t been too bad, according to Greer.

“The business interruption has been minimal,” he said. “I could think of a lot worse. Any improvements like this will be attractive to business … the strong will survive.”