PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - The ceremonial shovels were officially dug into the dirt Wednesday morning, marking a major milestone for Panama City Beach officials who have been working on bringing a new sports park to the area for years.
Two hundred and ten acres of woods near the corner of Back Beach Road and Cauley Avenue are now being transformed into a sports park.
The park is set to have 13 fields for sports like soccer, lacrosse, football, and baseball, which Bay County officials say will help increase tourism in the winter.
"It's about 100,000 extra room nights a year. It makes us a year-round destination as opposed to the seasonal business we've always had for so long. This will put heads in the beds in the winter time and that's what people want," Bay County District 5 Commissioner Philip "Griff" Griffitts said.
The park will also bring more attention to the east end of the beach.
"One of the great things about the new sports park is it's on the east end of the beach, which really allows us to continue to spread visitors out across Panama City Beach so that they're not all concentrated in one place," Visit Panama City Beach President Dan Rowe said.
The sports fields are part of the first phase of the $37 million project. A potential second phase would include an indoor facility, and a new school is also set to be on the property.
"St. Joe has donated 50 acres of land to Bay District Schools for a new elementary school which will be located right next to the sports park. It's awesome we're continuing to grow and this project is helping local residents and their families. This truly is a win-win," Rowe said.
The park is expected to be open and ready for kick-off by spring 2019.
"This is a state of the art facility. Every kid in the southeast will want to play on these fields, so we're very blessed," Griffitts said.
With the new sports park, comes a new entrance road named after a Panama City Beach Tourist Development Council employee who lost the battle to cancer.
They're calling the roadway Chip Seal Parkway.
Officials say Seal worked with the TDC for years as the Convention Visitors Bureau group sales manager.
They say he loved Panama City Beach, but more than that, he loved sports.
While he passed away in January of last year, his family and friends will remember him as they travel along his road.