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The evolution of spring break: businesses react to a new Panama City Beach

Pineapple Willy's also saw numbers drop once alcohol was banned. (WJHG/WECP)
Pineapple Willy's also saw numbers drop once alcohol was banned. (WJHG/WECP)(WJHG)
Published: Feb. 29, 2020 at 8:50 PM CST
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Five years ago was the last time people could legally drink on the beach in March. Some say it drove away college spring breakers and their money.

"It's been an interesting ride," Great White Pizza owner James Sickler said.

Sickler has been around for a while.

"I'm 41. I came here when I was in high school," Sickler added.

His business in Pier Park, previously known as RedBrick Pizza, started back in 2008, giving him a front-row seat to the rise and fall of college spring break in Panama City Beach.

"There's definitely a difference in the amount of people that are down here now in the month of March," Sickler said.

He credits the spring break laws that took effect in 2016 for driving out college students. For him, the cash flow also left town with the spring breakers.

"Overall, after looking through the numbers, it appears that I lost around 20-25% of my sales for the month of March," Sickler said.

Banana Peel Resort owner Alison Peel also took a hit.

"We've lost a lot of revenue from spring break. A big part of our business was spring break. I think Panama City Beach thrived off of spring breakers," Peel said.

She also says she misses the rush of college students.

"For the last two, three years, it's been slowly declining and declining, and it's pitiful," Peel said.

The resort offers a college spring break special, but this year, there will be a lot of vacancies.

"It's depressing. We don't have spring break anymore. We miss our college kids," Peel said.

However, other businesses are seeing a boom since spring break went bust.

Sales and vacation rental company Sunspot Realty caters to families.

"That's who we rent our beachfront houses, townhouses, and condos to. So, during the time period where spring break was college-based, we saw a negative in our numbers," Sunspot Realy sales associate and marketing manager Sam Tuno said.

Tuno says the decline of college spring break allowed Panama City Beach to become more family-friendly.

"As the change has happened in the last few years and as the whole beach has seen more families, we've definitely seen families coming back," Tuno said.

The tides didn't shift overnight. In March 2015, the height of college spring break, bed tax numbers were $2,012,723. The first year the drinking ban was in place, they dropped 41% to $1,193,002.

According to the Tourist Development Council, in March 2019, they climbed back up to $2,017,252, even higher than they were in 2015.

"Over time I see nothing but more families coming to our beach and it benefiting businesses like ours year-round, not just during spring break," Tuno said.

Sickler is also relying on time to tell.

"What you as a business owner hope, and as a community hope, is that you're going to have a downturn, you're going to have a leveling off at the bottom, and then it's going to start climbing again," Sicker said.

Pineapple Willy's also saw numbers drop once alcohol was banned.

"The first year it was a huge decline in business. We sell to-go daiquiris to the beach and obviously we can't do that," Pineapple Willy's chief executive officer Melissa Traxler said.

The business adjusted with the laws, selling virgin daiquiris with airplane bottles on the side to comply with the ban on sandy beaches.

"We do post signs everywhere for all of our customers to see to make sure they're not getting arrested for taking drinks on the beach," Traxler said.

She misses the times before but understands the shifting tides.

"I would say if we could bring spring break back the way it was ten years ago we would all welcome it but the way it was five years ago, there were definitely problems," Traxler said.

It's an interesting ride Sickler is choosing to stay on, no matter how his business flows.

"I think I would rather ride out this law change for another few years just to see what happens and give it a chance to work," Sickler said.

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