Florida Main Street
Program of the Month
November 2007 Community of the Month
Panama City Main Street
Secretary of State Kurt S. Browning Announces Florida Main Street Community of the MonthSecretary of State Kurt S. Browning announced that Panama City Main Street has been designated the Florida Main Street Community of the Month for November 2007. Communities are selected based on their participation in the Florida Main Street Program. Panama City Main Street was one of the first five Florida Main Street programs, established in 1985. "Panama City is a perfect example of how great communities can adapt to changing fortunes and continue to thrive and grow," said Secretary Browning. "Downtown Panama City is charming and vibrant, and the city is a destination for visitors from throughout the southeast and around the country."
Archaeological evidence dates Native American habitation of the peninsula between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico back 12,000 years. The Spanish began exploring the area for a deepwater port in 1559. Today, Panama City, with a population of 37,540, is the county seat of Bay County and is now gaining national recognition as a cultural hotspot on the Florida Panhandle.
Incorporated in 1906, the area that became Panama City had been for decades a destination for settlers and tourists. Downtown was originally called "Park Resort," then "Harrison" in the 1880s. Located on pristine St. Andrews Bay, Panama City became an important fishing village and key port for lumber used in shipbuilding during World War II. With numerous restaurants, shops, and charter boats, Panama City remained a popular tourist destination.
But in the 1970s, the nearby community of Panama City Beach grew in prominence as a tourist destination, and after the construction of a large mall north of town, downtown Panama City began to lose its stature as the center of community life. Responding quickly to the changing fortunes of downtown, the city established the Downtown Improvement Board in 1973, which today oversees the Main Street program. The commercial area was all but dead by the late 1970s, but the work of the Main Street program and the Downtown Improvement Board has helped downtown Panama City rescue its historic character and become a culturally rich, thriving 21st-century city.
Although the pioneering Main Street program in Panama City achieved great initial success, the program went into dormancy for several years but was revived in 2000. After implementing Main Street’s revitalization principles and undertaking a focused effort at promoting heritage tourism, Panama City was recognized as a National Main Street Program in 2003. Since designation, Panama City Main Street has witnessed more than $40 million in reinvestment in downtown, 220 new businesses (including 20 in the last 6 months), 488 new jobs, and nearly 2,700 volunteer hours. Panama City Main Street stages several downtown events each year. More than 20,000 people came to this year's Oktoberfest, and the Krewe of St. Andrews Mardi Gras is one of the largest events in Bay County.
Grants from the Division of Historical Resources and Division of Cultural Affairs supported the renovation of the Martin Theater, a 1936 movie palace with a beautiful Art Deco façade. Abandoned since 1978, the theater was rehabilitated and re-opened in 1991 as a venue for live entertainment, community events, and conferences. The city hall/jail complex was rehabilitated by the Downtown Improvement Board, in cooperation with the Visual Arts Center of Northwest Florida, and has helped establish Panama City as a cultural boomtown between Pensacola and Tallahassee.
This year, Panama City was recognized with eight Secretary of State Main Street Merit Awards: Outstanding Florida Main Street Fundraising or Membership Development Effort, Rehabilitation Project, Public Improvement, Image Campaign or Promotional Material, Community-Peer, Retail Sales Promotion, Special Event, and Business of the Year. "We couldn’t be more excited about the recent revitalization in Downtown Panama City through events like Oktoberfest and Friday Fest," says program manager Molly Martin. "Businesses ranging from a European bakery to an upscale hardware store are flocking downtown while still maintaining a historic feel with uptown flair."
Florida Main Street is a technical assistance program of the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State. The Bureau conducts statewide programs aimed at identifying, evaluating, and preserving Florida's historic resources. Main Street, with its emphasis on preservation, is an effective strategy for achieving these goals in Florida's historic retail districts. Since 1985, the Bureau has offered manager training, consultant team visits, design and other technical assistance, as well as the benefit of experience gained by other Florida Main Street programs.