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'Not the Redneck Riviera'

By Valerie Garman, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 17--PANAMA CITY BEACH -- Despite backlash from those hoping for more drastic regulations for Spring Break next year, Panama City Beach officials say change is coming.

The magnitude of change, however, is still unclear.

"I don't know how much difference they will make," said Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst. "All we can do is try and see."

At its May 8 meeting the Panama City Beach Council moved forward with 16 out of 20 considerations discussed to tighten regulations for college Spring Break. While the council threw out one of the most substantial changes, a ban for alcohol on the beach, they did move forward with an earlier 2 a.m. cutoff time for alcohol sales during Spring Break.

In addition to earlier closing times for bars, City Manager Mario Gisbert said some of the most substantial changes would come from amending the way the city handles special events during Spring Break. Of the 16 items pushed through by the council last week, three directly addressed special events on the beach.

Those changes include allowing only one special event on the sandy beach per day, and requiring businesses to provide additional security personnel, fence off the event space and establish a checkpoint for attendees.

"Right now it's just an open beach," Gisbert said of the events as they are handled now. "Right now there's no ticket; there's nothing. This is very important; I can't stress that enough."

Getting specific

Gisbert said staff now is working to define what exactly constitutes an event and at what point the police and fire departments are spread too thin.

The council also plans to require all persons with an alcoholic beverage to carry a valid ID during Spring Break next year, and will impose a ban on digging holes on the beach, which law enforcement says will help curb "illegal activities along with sexual misconduct."

Because Spring Break dates change every year, Gisbert said any Spring Break-specific items would likely be adopted by ordinance before the event and voided by the council afterward, but staff is reviewing options.

Several other approved considerations involve boosting law enforcement and K-9 police dog units during Spring Break, something that still has a big question mark beside it in terms of funding.

However, Gisbert said the city has received donations and verbal commitments from members of the local business community interested in providing funding for law enforcement.

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The city already has received a $1,000 check and a $10,000 total commitment from local property management company Emerald View Association Management to assist the city in purchasing a K-9.

Gisbert also said he has received verbal commitments from several other beach business owners to round up substantial funds, upward of $100,000, to help beef up law enforcement.

"It's very important to them that we maintain a clean image," Gisbert said. "They want to make sure it's a safe Spring Break, because a bad Spring Break doesn't do their image any good or the city's image any good."

Among that group is Paradise Found Resorts & Hotels vice president Julie Hilton, who applauded the council's actions, which she cited as a decision to focus on the "negative predatory behavior" of Spring Break.

"I think the City Council acted very responsibly by sending 16 action items to legal staff," Hilton said. "I think our competition will try to use the closing the bars at 2 a.m. to our disadvantage and hopefully we will be able to overcome that."

Paradise Found's properties, which include the Holiday Inn Resort on Front Beach Road, are popular accommodation options for spring breakers, and they often host DJs and other entertainment on the beach for guests.

"I'm sure it will affect us to some extent, and I hope it will do so overall in a positive way," Hilton said of the proposed changes. "I'm not sure what benefit it will have, but we're hopeful law enforcement will be able to make it something that could keep out the negative predatory behavior that has created a problem."

Hilton said Spring Break is an essential part of the beach's economy in March, one that many Daytona Beach businesses regret driving away.

"Daytona has been trying to regain their Spring Break market for 20 years," Hilton said. "We're grateful to have the opportunity to serve college students. No one has found a valuable market to replace them in March."

Commissioner: 'A step backwards'

Residents flooded the Panama City Beach Council chambers to speak out against spring breakers' racy behavior in the weeks following the airing of an unflattering national news report on college Spring Break in Panama City Beach.

Oberst said the program, which aired on "The Sean Hannity Show" on Fox News in March, brought Spring Break into the living rooms of residents who normally wouldn't comment.

"It brought it to the attention of a lot of people," Oberst said. "That was a terrible picture to show of the beach. We all agree that's not the image we want to show the world."

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Some of the first recommendations for change came from Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen, who pitched four changes, including the beach alcohol ban, in a letter to Gisbert.

Bay County Commissioner Mike Thomas said he felt the city took a step backward in not approving all of the sheriff's suggestions.

"The sheriff clearly stated that one of the problems he has on the sand is underage drinking and the big groups of people," Thomas said. "I was hoping this was something the city and county could work together on, but the City Council apparently has heard a different argument from their residents."

The County Commission voted last week for the City Council to approve the sheriff's recommendations.

"I think it's crazy for us not to give them what they ask for," said Thomas, noting different county and city rules would make enforcement too difficult. "We've got to act together on this, and I just think that was a step backwards."

Councilwoman Josie Strange was the sole vote in favor of banning alcohol on the beach during Spring Break.

"I think the council made a big mistake," said Strange, who recently was re-elected in a grassroots campaign that overcame her opponent's well-financed challenge. "I think it's a safety issue. I think that we're one beer bottle away from a riot and when it happens I'm going to know I voted correctly and they didn't."

'Missed the boat'

The council also threw out a proposal from Panama City Beach Police Chief Drew Whitman to ban coolers on the beach, one Strange said would not be enough to solve the problem.

"I really think the answer for Spring Break is no alcohol on the beach; I think we really missed the boat," Strange said. "I just feel strongly that we need to make some decisions to bring the beach back like it was intended to be ... not the Redneck Riviera."

Darrell Sellers, who heads an organization for absentee condo owners,also was disappointed in the council's actions.

"I don't think the City Council really has the residents in mind; I think they're putting businesses in front of the residents," said Sellers, who led a charge against Spring Break even before the national media attention.

Sellers, who expressed concern about declining property values, said he hopes to see more enforcement of the laws on the books next year, particularly those pertaining to underage drinking, public indecency and loitering.

"I am no constitutional lawyer, but it seems like my civil rights are being violated," Sellers said. "We as property owners are not being protected."

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SPRING BREAK VIDEOS

PHOTO GALLERY WEEK 4

PHOTO GALLERY WEEK 3

PHOTO GALLERY WEEK 2

PHOTO GALLERY WEEK 1

UPDATED LIST OF PROPOSALS

Following is the list of proposals the City Council considered at its previous meeting. Items struck through with a line were rejected:

1) Provide additional law enforcement and emergency medical services support during spring break; coordinate with TDC, Businesses & Guest Properties

2) Provide additional K-9 units

3) Allow no alcoholic beverages on the beaches (sand) or parking lots, during college Spring Break

4) Restrict any type of cooler, regardless of size or shape, on the white sandy portion of our beach during College Spring Break. This would still allow our residents and guests to consume a single alcoholic beverage on the beach, but would eliminate the large parties with coolers which usually contribute to the underage drinkers.

5) Any person who is in possession of an alcoholic beverage must have a valid state issued picture identification card/license on their person.

6) Require all bars, nightclubs, restaurants or any other establishment that serves or sells alcoholic beverages to stop the sale of said item at 2:00 A.M -- 365 days a year.

7) During college Spring Break, require all bars, clubs, and other establishments located on Panama City Beach and the unincorporated area west of Hathaway Bridge to stop serving alcoholic beverages at least by 2:00 A.M. and possibly even earlier.

8) Aggressively enforce capacity limits and fire safety ordinances during Spring Break at condos, hotels and clubs.

9) Use TDC advertising money currently spent on college Spring Break to advertise what you can't do here and all new laws and ordinances.

10) Close all City-owned parking lots at 5:00 P.M. every day, but install an exit gate to allow the guests to leave at any time.

11)Beach Side night curfew

12) Allow only one Special Event on the sandy portion of the beach per day.

13) Require additional support staff 3-officers per 1,000-guest to the special events permit

14) To require the Event organizer to fence off the event area and to take responsibility of their property including check point. This has worked on the beach in the past.

15) Prohibit the digging of any holes on the sandy portion of the beach. This is not only a safety issue for emergency personnel, but for people just walking on the beach. Some of these holes are large enough to hold eight to ten people and illegal activities along with sexual misconduct do occur within them. Require street side and beach side restrooms in areas with large concentrations of visitors

16) Require street side and beach side restrooms in areas with large concentrations of visitors

17) Strengthen Scooter regulations, insurance, monitoring and enforcement

18) Work with property owners in order to better manage beach areas and activities

19) Work with property owners in order to better manage guest on property and in rooms

20) We must continue to meet with members of our community once a week during Spring Break and regularly throughout the year, searching for new ideas.

___

(c)2014 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

Visit The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.) at www.newsherald.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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