Panama City, on the Florida panhandle, is set against a climate that is as close to perfect as possible. Panama City is widely acknowledged for its wonderful resorts and deepwater fishing port on St. Andrew Bay. Perfect for families, sportsmen, hikers, bikers, swimmers, theater-lovers and more, the area provides year-round access to first-rate amenities in one of the most scenic areas of Florida.
“The name Panama City actually refers to the Panama Canal,” says Jeff Brown. “At the time, we were the closest port to the Panama Canal zone.” Previously assistant city manager for nine and a half years, Brown has been city manager for the past ten months.
The area is popular with tourists and offers entertainment opportunities through the Martin Theatre and the Visual Arts Center, both located nearby. Panama City is ideal for young families, seniors and anyone interested in outdoor activities, fishing, water sports, arts, entertainment and more. The city boasts its self-owned Panama City Marina and St. Andrews Marina, both strategically located on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway.
With a current population of 37,256, Panama City continues to be a community of mixed ages. In the past, the area has seen tourism as a resort area, been used as a seafood and fishing port, for paper and chemical production, for shipbuilding and was one of the largest copper importers in the United States. In recent years, Panama City has continued to build on its existing amenities and attractions as it looks toward the future.
The city’s mayor, seasoned businessman Mayor Greg Brudnicki, was involved in a range of businesses over the past forty years, including hospitals, banking, restaurants and the funeral industry. He then turned his focus to politics and hasn’t looked back since. Brudnicki was sworn-in for his third term as mayor this past May 27.
Keen on keeping pace with other communities, Panama City has several projects under development. Located on the site of the original Panama City airport, early 2014 saw the beginnings of the SweetBay master-planned community.
Consisting of 260 single-family homes, the SweetBay location also provides a setting for University Academy, Florida State University’s K-5 charter school in the repurposed airport building. “The first thing they did was they converted the old airport building into a school, so they would have a University Academy school opened and operating there to attract families,” says Brudnicki.
The 700-acre site is currently under development by Leucadia National Corporation which is responsible for other successful master-planned communities such as Baldwin Park in Orlando, and Kissimmee’s Celebration. SweetBay will also see $4 million of infrastructure works. Although purchased in the mid-2000s, Leucadia National Corp. waited to start construction until a new airport, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport was built and operational in 2010.
“The 700 acres that make-up SweetBay has been approved for 3,200 homes and 700,000 square feet of commercial space over the next twenty to thirty years,” says Mike Lane, a veteran planning director all over the southeast and currently director of planning and economic development for the city. He added that much of Panama City was built around the old airport in the 1950s and already has considerable infrastructure in place.
Unlike one of Leucadia’s earlier projects, Walton County’s Rosemary Beach which has a strong emphasis on resort homes, SweetBay will concentrate primarily on residential dwellings, surrounded by parks and other green spaces, including a five-mile long bayfront trail. To be built in seven phases, the entire SweetBay development is anticipated to take approximately ten to twenty years to complete.
Economically, construction of SweetBay will also see the creation of hundreds of jobs during phase one, attract new residents to the Panama City area and help raise additional taxes for the community. With the first building permits being issued several months ago, Brudnicki says model homes should be built and open by April or May of 2016.
“At this point, the overall Panama City metro area consists of about six other communities,” says Lane. “One of the interesting things about Panama City is it has not had a significant number of middle-class housing. These houses will start out at about $235,000 and up, and we are anxious to see them get started.”
The city owns over twenty acres along the bay where city hall is located and began investigating means of improving the Panama City Marina. Located on the Intercoastal Waterway just one block from downtown Panama City, the area boasts a recently-renovated 240-slip marina able to handle numerous classes of vessels, ranging from 30 to 120 feet, with drafts up to 10 feet. With permanent coverage and uncovered boat slips available for vessels 30 to 50 feet in length, the marina – which features laundry facilities, showers, fax, copier service and nautical gifts – is within walking distance to the Panama City Marina Civic Center, restaurants and coffee shops, art galleries and more.
After determining that the area would be a good revenue source with the right developers, the city accepted proposals from five developers. The city commission then narrowed it down. While nothing concrete has been set forth at this time, the city is in negotiations with the final developer and discussing potential marina construction including residential rentals, a hotel, festival shopping and three to four restaurants.
Other plans for the area include a proposed, 250,000 square foot town center on a thirty-five-acre parcel of land which used to be an old automobile salvage yard. Still in the preliminary stages, the area, to be known as Bay City Point, will see plan approval in the coming months.
Another major draw for the area is education. The Florida State University Panama City campus, located some hundred miles from the main Tallahassee campus, is one of the key educational institutions in the area, along with the Gulf Coast State College.
Located on Harrison Avenue, is the Martin Theatre, which first opened its doors as The Ritz in 1936. Panama City is also home to the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida. An integral part of the city’s downtown revitalization efforts, the Visual Arts Center presents exhibitions, educates the public and hosts numerous art classes focusing on painting, pottery, ceramics and other media. “For a community our size, the Martin Theatre and The Visual Arts Center are great assets to have,” says Lane.
And while the area is known for spring break and tourists being attracted to sand, sun and surf, Panama City is not Panama City Beach. Panama City being on the east side of the Hathaway Bridge, with Panama City Beach being on the west. “We are the namesake for the area,” says Lane. “There is Panama City Metro area; there’s Panama City airport.”
Panama City is also home to nearby Tyndall Air Force Base; Naval Support Activity Panama City, a United States Navy military base; the world-renowned Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU); and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD).
With numerous tourist attractions, construction projects, new housing, arts and culture, world-class restaurants, an ideal climate year-round and access to some of the finest beaches America has to offer, Florida’s Panama City is on a mission to reclaim its dominance.
With its experienced and enthusiastic local government, Panama City continues to be a vibrant, attractive place to live, work and play. ”Basically, the communities that surround us have been very progressive over the years, and we are a force to be reckoned with. We have turned a corner and awakened. The giant has awakened.”