Special Report: Gulf Coast Revival

By Jim Wallace - bio | email 

Panama City Beach, FLA (WALB) -  Panama City Beach business owners say this will be their most important spring and summer tourism season. Last April's oil rig explosion and 3 month long oil spill is estimated to have cost Panama City Beach businesses $54 million when tourists stayed away.

Now the area many call "South Georgia's beach" looks at 2011 with hope of a business revival.

The sugar white sand of Panama City beach is clean and oil free. But business leaders say many visitors still have doubts.

"And they all want to know if the oil is gone. So the misconception hasn't gone away," said Ship Wreck Island General manager Buddy Wilkes.

Don and Rose Bralich of Wisconsin made that call, wondering if last summer's oil spill disaster had stained the beach. "We called down here and asked if they were any problems at all," Don Bralich said.

Panama City Beach business owners worry many people still have last summer's images of the Deep Horizon Oil Well explosion and 205 million gallons of crude oil surging into the gulf.

"Every time you turned on one of those 24 hour cable networks, you saw the pipe and you saw the oil spewing out, and the word's 'gulf coast,'" Wilkes said.

Panama City Beach actually avoided most of the spill. Sharky's Restaurant owner Mike Bennett said, "No oil, but just a few tar balls hit the beach at Panama City Beach."

But tourists stayed away from the beach and from places like Captain Anderson's Restaurant.  "We saw a drop in business unlike we had ever seen," said owner Yonnie Patronis.

Many tourism businesses say they were down 20 to 40 percent.   "Yes, it affected everybody. It affected the school system. It affected the city. The tax base runs everything," said Ripley's Believe It or Not and Wonder Works owner Gary Walsingham.

"You know, the sun comes up tomorrow and it's a beautiful day in Florida," said Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau president Dan Rowe.

Spring break gets underway next week, and Panama City Beach business leaders think 2011 will be golden.

"There is an anticipation of a really good season, this summer," Wilkes said.

Later this summer Panama City's beach will get a renourishment of fresh sand from the ocean floor, making it wider and whiter, and officials are making sure oil will not spoil it.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a series of tests to make sure there is no oil on the borrow areas, or in the sand column there," Rowe said.

So Panama City Beach officials are optimistic 2011 will be a year of revival. "There is not anything wrong with this beach. It's as beautiful as it's ever been," Bennett said.

"Last year is behind us, and this year is a season of great expectations," Wilkes said.

Rose and Don say the oil spill did not ruin Panama City Beach. "It's just as beautiful as it always is for us. It hasn't really changed it any," Rose said.

Panama City Beach officials call these ocean waves and white sands their greatest natural resource, and hope this summer once again guests will have no questions about oil.

Panama City Beach is launching an advertising and marketing campaign to tell people there is no oil on their beach. Their new international airport opened last summer, and tourism officials are hopeful this summer it be a gateway for new guests, both nationally and internationally.

Copyright 2011 WALB.  All rights reserved.   Feedback