PANAMA CITY, Fla – The Panama City Marina has been the anchor for the downtown area since the 1950’s, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the city actually gained complete ownership of the facility from the state. That gave city officials the right to develop the marina, partnering with for-profit businesses. Some believe the right development could reverse a 40-year trend.
“How do we use the marina as a catalyst to build on to revitalize downtown? Because for the last 30 years, if you look at it, everything’s been a flight to the beach. There’s been a flight to 77, and downtown has continued to lose customers and lose business and it was time. So, when we got ownership, that gave us the ability to have public private ownerships on the property,” said Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki.
Last year, city commissioners hired Robert Sonnenblick, a Los Angeles developer with more than 30-years experience, and Peter Bos, a successful Destin businessman and developer, to envision the marina’s future. The new partnership, called NewCo LLC, has pitched what they call “rough” proposals.
Both Exhibit-A and Exhibit-B are similar, calling for hotel space, restaurants, entertainment or theaters, boat storage and service facilities, parking structures, apartments, and a major renovation of the marina civic center. Exhibit-B floats business names like Hilton and Marriott, Maguire’s Irish Pub, Jimmy Buffet spin-off’s Lulu’s and Landshark, and Bonefish Grill.
“It will spur people coming. If there are people coming, it will spur people to live downtown, and it will create jobs. We just want to make sure it’s done correctly and that whatever we do is beneficial to the public as a whole,” said Brudnicki.
“I’m not really keen on national themed chains,” said Panama City Commissioner John Kady.
Commissioner John Kady says he’s taking his cues from earlier public meetings, where residents told commissioners what they wanted at the marina.
“Those original guidelines – they’re very explicit. One – public access to the water, including boating and fishing, public and private entertainment venues for enjoyment, mixed retail, restaurant, office space, attractive and adequate parking facilities, civic activity space, connections to and elements of public art, an overall mix of projects that provide a substantial economic benefit to downtown, not just to this site,” said Kady.
“We asked to see restaurants on the marina. We asked to see a hotel. The civic center is, according to what we’ve talked about on our conference calls, an integral part of the deal. So, if you have people coming and staying at the hotel – going to upgraded shows at the civic center for the public – do you put a movie theater down there? There are some commissioners that say they don’t like that. I’ve talked to a lot of people that would love a movie theater downtown – that don’t want to go to Pier Park. Something for the locals,” said Brudnicki.
When commissioners cancelled Tuesday’s public meeting to hear the developer’s plans, criticized Kady decided to hold his own town hall, saying there’s not enough information available.
Brudnicki defends the decision.
“They weren’t ready. And I said, if you’re not ready, don’t come in here with some half-baked deal. We don’t want to see a piece of paper with scribbling on it. ‘We think we can do this. We know we can do this.’ We wanna see something – one – that we can eventually take to the public and say, guess what? They can deliver this. Do you want it?” said Brudnicki.
“This is being created for one purpose and that is that this will be the destination. It’s almost like they know they have a requirement to enhance the city so it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, of course this is gonna enhance the city.’ But it is intended to be a standalone,” said Kady.
“This is for, not only people that live downtown, but Bay County. This is for all over the region. But, if that doesn’t happen and we can’t do it, we’re going to exhaust all effort to make sure that we find out. Because we owe it to the public to unleash the potential of what we have downtown,” said Brudnicki.
Peter Bos stressed that anyone is yet to see his and Sonnenblick’s final marina development plan.
The public should get it’s first look on March 14th.