PC business owners cross their fingers

By Jim Wallace - bio | email 

Panama City Beach, Fla.  (WALB) – People in Panama City Beach are watching the gulf crisis closely, and hoping that the oil spill does not spread this far east.

Tuesday a feeling of more hope from the emergency officials that they may be spared, but not everyone is convinced.

Heavy rain gave way to a sunny afternoon, and Panama City Beach officials started a full scale public relations counter attack against the oil slick.   Many tourists have canceled their trip to the 'most beautiful beaches', because of the oil crisis.

Hotel and restaurant owners say there is no oil here, and are urging tourists to come, despite the news.

There was little traffic on Front Beach Road Tuesday afternoon, and some say the hotel reservation cancellations have been as high as 50%.  Sharky's Seafood Restaurant on the Beach has some empty tables at lunchtime, but the owner is smiling.

Sharky's owner Mike Bennett said, "We are on the far edge of likelihood of this thing even getting here in the weekend forecast.  So Panama City Beach is just open for business."

The Treasure Island Seafood Market owner Big Country Job Brown says demand for fresh fish is off, but he has had no problems getting all he needs

"We get it all straight from the Gulf, and we are going to keep it as fresh as we can.  And oil free as we can!"

The Convention and Visitors Bureau says Panama City Beach businesses know tourist are worried about the oil slick, and have dropped their cancellation notice to just 24 hours to get them to come this weekend despite the scare.

"We really do encourage them not to cancel their reservations until closer in, until they can determine if we miss this disaster," said President Dan Rowe.

Business owners are making the best of hard times, and urging visitors to come now, and hope BP and Federal officials can keep the oil slick under control, and off their beaches.

No one knows for sure if or when the oil slick could spread this far.  Charter fish boat captains tell us they think there is no way to keep the oil out  of  the Grand Lagoon, and that will have a disastrous effect on the environment.  They all know that tourism is the lifeblood for Panama City Beach's economy, so they watch carefully and hope for the best.

Captain Ellis Captain Stephen Brookins pilots his fishing boat, through the Grand Lagoon, and fears the worst from the gulf crisis.  "I do think it will make it by the end of this week.  It will be here," Brookins said.

Brookins says his whole life was spent on these waters. "I got a lot of memories in this bay, and I don't want to see it destroyed. I grew up on this boat.  Been doing it all my life.  It was my granddad's boat and got it from him."

That's why seeing dolphins and wildlife is so sad to him. "They like to sit out there on the end of that beach and sun bather.  If it makes it up in here, all the birds going to be covered in oil," Brookins said.

This bay is vital to the ocean's food chain, and he worries the oil in here could have a disastrous environmental  impact.

"If it gets down here and it's still pumping like it's been pumping, the way it's pumping, it's going to be a good ten years before they get all this out of the ocean and cleaned back up," Brookins said.

No one knows if the oil slick will make it this far.  Brookins and many other captains worry that their way of life could be ended if it does.

"It's the only thing I know to do. Fishing.  It's all I've ever done." Captain Brookins says he may sign on with BP to try and contain the oil spill, because right now no one is fishing in Panama City Beach, and he has to try and earn a living.

Many Panama City Beach officials are saying there are good signs tonight that the oil spill is not spreading toward their area,  but continue to prepare in case it does.

City and business leaders continue to meet daily, to keep abreast of the latest information about that oil spill, and try to keep the tourism business thriving despite the gulf crisis.

School will be out in a couple of weeks, which opens Panama City Beaches hottest season.

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