The Bad and the Good that Comes with Spring Break

Beer Bongs Versus Big BucksWeighing the bad and the good that comes with Spring BreakBy Tony Bridges

There are few topics as controversial in Panama City Beach as Spring Break.

The community spends thousands of dollars every year to attract college kids from across the Southeast and thousands more to police and clean up after them. In return, the students pour their cash into bars and restaurants, and fill beds in condos and hotels up and down the beach.

Longtime residents complain about the large, unruly crowds and the inevitable traffic jams. Business owners count on the student dollars to help carry them through the year.

Meanwhile, no one seems able to agree on whether the annual influx of free-spending kids is a boon for Panama City Beach’s economy, or a poison pill that will cost the community in the long run. That question may hang on how potential visitors perceive Spring Break and PCB as a destination.

"Spring Break is an issue that divides the community," said Dan Rowe, executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council. "But there are a lot of people that are very dependent on Spring Break."

Spring Break tax dollars

There are no solid counts, but the TDC estimates between 150,000 and 250,000 students spend Spring Break in Panama City Beach.

Local businesses don’t like to share how much revenue they generate during Spring Break, and Rowe, the TDC director, said no comprehensive survey has ever been done to determine the overall economic impact. Bed tax numbers, however, offer a glimpse.

There is a 4 percent tax on accommodations in PCB. That tax generated $1.03 million in revenue in March 2009 and more than $813,000 in March 2008, before a 1-cent increase in the tax. The end of snowbird season overlaps with Spring Break, but presumably the majority came from college and high-school kids.

About $150,000 was spent on marketing to attract those students.

Hard on the locals

Despite the dollars, there are some very real problems that come with Spring Break.

City crews have to work overtime to pick up trash, traffic congestion makes some parts of the beach nearly inaccessible, and state agents make nearly 1,000 arrests for underage drinking some years. Deaths are not uncommon and, inevitably, there are incidents that generate negative publicity for PCB. This year, a student who was driving under the influence hit and killed another Spring Breaker, then died in a head-on collision, and a third student was found dead near his rented condo, a victim of alcohol poisoning.

Some of the trouble in 2009 stemmed from a series of free concerts sponsored by mtvU, a sister network to MTV that plays on university campuses and has partnered with the TDC to market Spring Break. Big-name acts such as Lil’ Wayne and Flo Rida drew unexpectedly large crowds that all but shut down Thomas Drive for hours following each show and left mounds of trash strewn about parking lots surrounding the venue. After one concert, a dispute over parking led to a shooting that, while it involved people from Tallahassee and Jackson County, was lumped in with Spring Break activity.

And those problems are what cause the divide.

"Some of our residents are really, really stressed over the things that happen during Spring Break," said Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst.

On one side are those who feel that Spring Break tarnishes the city’s reputation at a time when officials are trying to rebrand it as an upscale family destination. On the other are those who argue that PCB is big enough — and the year long enough — to be a destination for everyone, college kids and family vacationers included.

To Judy Pelon, it’s time to move past being a Spring Break mecca.

She’s a travel agent who owns four rental condos and lives in Panama City Beach the first three months of each year.

For her and those like her, Spring Break is a money-loser because many new condo properties don’t allow rentals to students, who are often hard on the property and disruptive to other guests. And since families often don’t want to visit during Spring Break, condo units can sit empty, earning nothing, for those six weeks, she said.

"I am totally against Spring Break," Pelon said recently. "It hurts all of us that have any new units."

Needs better management?

Sparky Sparkman, co-owner of Schooners and two other popular beach spots, said that geography has made Spring Break a part of the community. For now, PCB needs to accept that because, "what we stand to lose is a lot more than we stand to gain in the short run," he said.

Sparkman said Spring Break is no worse than any other large event.

"We want those kids," he said. "Are they going to do the wrong thing sometimes? Hell, yeah. We’re never going to stop the bad things that happen when you get a large group of people together."

He believes the problem is simply one of management. Sparkman said that includes increased policing for crowd and traffic control, making the right choices in entertainment and marketing partners, and better planning by those holding large events.

"Spring Break is a good thing," he said. "It could be a lot better if it were managed more efficiently. We’ve been a little bit remiss in recent years."

Mayor Oberst said city officials are trying to make Spring Break more controlled.

They’ve imposed stricter requirements for getting event permits. Organizers have to demonstrate they have adequately planned for crowd safety and traffic controls and provided enough bathroom facilities to accommodate large crowds. The city also is looking at making the noise ordinance tougher, and recently shortened the amount of time property owners have to clean up trash (on their own properties, since the TDC pays a contractor $495,000 a year to empty trash barrels on the beach, and the city picks up trash from right of ways). The city is trying to implement better coordination between the police and fire departments and beach resorts, as well, she said.

"We are responsible to people who depend on tourism … and also to the people who live here all the time," Oberst said. "It’s a fun place, but it needs to be a fun place for all of us."

The opinions that matter

But, what locals think of Spring Break may not matter nearly as much as how those from outside the area feel. What if Spring Break turns off potential visitors all year around?
Pelon said she frequently speaks to travelers who have no interest in visiting PCB at any time.

A BEACH FOR ALL SEASONS Beachgoers kick off summer on Panama City Beach behind Edgewater Beach Resort June 25, 2009. While some residents and local business owners fear that Spring Break tarnishes the city’s reputation, others argue that PCB is a great destination for both college kids and family vacationers year round. Photo by Scott Holstein."People tell us they don’t come to Panama City Beach because of Spring Break … they seem to think it happens all year," she said. "I think what they see on TV has poisoned them for Panama City Beach, period."

The problem is that all such evidence of how potential visitors view PCB is anecdotal, according to Rowe.

That’s why the TDC has paid $39,500 to a marketing company called Y Partnership to conduct a survey of attitudes about the area. The company is talking to people in the drive market — metropolitan areas within 500 miles of PCB — as well as possible fly markets to gauge perceptions about Spring Break.

"We need to know definitively, objectively, does Spring Break help us or hurt us?" Rowe said.

The results are expected in early summer. Once they come in, Rowe said, TDC officials will begin holding public forums to discuss the findings and figure out where to go from there.

According to Rowe, the ultimate goal is for Panama City Beach to be known as a place where students come in the spring, and where everyone else visits the rest of the time.

"If you don’t want to be surrounded by Spring Breakers, there are 11 other months of the year to come here," he said. "This is not the experience that you’re going to get in July or other times of the year.