| The News Herald
PANAMA CITY — Residents and visitors are bound to find the new welcome center a destination place.
Local tourism agency Destination Panama City will break ground and start construction this month on its new welcome center. The two-story, 2,700 square-foot structure presents a flexible floor plan that includes a 500-foot open-air deck, a conference room and public showering facilities.
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The groundbreaking ceremony is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 16 and construction before the end of the month. The project is expected to be completed by May.
“It’s going to bring better curb appeal,” said Destination Panama City President and CEO Jennifer Vigil, pointing to public art in the rendering of the modern designed waterfront structure. “It will be really nice.”
The cooling hues of blues in the interior design compliment the view for much of the deck, which faces the bay on West Beach Drive next to the former location of the old city hall. The $1.1 million structure will be built by Anderson Construction.
Vigil said one of the main goals of the design is to generate activity at the waterfront. She is in the process of securing permits to place in-shore artificial reefs in the shallow waters that give way for snorkeling and does not require a boat to access.
“For all the kids and families in the community that can’t afford boats and don’t have the ability to go to Shell Island, they can come here for free and go down and learn about the ecology of the bay,” Vigil said, also noting that the traffic the St. Joe marina hotel will bring to the area. “It will be a really active waterfront.”
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The new home for Destination Panama City comes after Hurricane Michael totaled its former building on Beck Avenue in 2018. The staff lingered in temporary spots for some time until securing a lease for a trailer that’s located at the site of the new welcome center.
Vigil said after applying for FEMA grants, she realized the agency did not qualify for any aid as a nonprofit nor a tourism agency. The conference room in the new construction will soothe that requirement for eligibility in the case of another disaster.
“We learned a huge lesson with Hurricane Michael. Tourism … is not mentioned anywhere in the FEMA disaster handbooks,” she said. “So, looking for the future … we made sure that there was meeting space so that in the future we can fall under that public assistance FEMA money and make sure that the building can be restored.”
She touted the support from Visit Panama City Beach and Visit Florida, which largely supplemented marketing efforts to drive visitors to the recovering area. Because of the support, and being otherwise fiscally responsible, the project will move forward debt free.