PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG) - Since the 90's, Panama City Beach has been known for its wild spring break crowds. Last year, the city and county passed a laundry list of laws, hoping to shed its reputation for debauchery.
Last March an alleged gang rape and a shooting that injured seven people left the city with a bad taste in its mouth.
"It could have been enforced away," said Jack Bishop, owner of Harpoon Harry's. "I believe they were making progress the last couple years."
This year we haven't seen violence, but we also haven't seen many spring breakers. Neil Knight, marketing director at Club La Vela, says business is down 60 percent.
"It's one thing to ask these bartenders and service industry employees to hold their breath from Labor Day till March," said Knight. "If we have to ask them to hold their breath from Labor Day until Memorial Day, I worry there's gonna be a lot of people who choose to live somewhere else."
Knight says even though it's the last week in March, this time last year their pool deck was completely packed. He says the night club is starting to feel more like a ghost town.
"It caused us to have to let some employees go."
Taxi Driver Larry Noel says business at Beach Boys is down 60 to 85 percent.
"There's not even 10 percent of the traffic that we had last year up and down Front Beach, Middle Beach, Back Beach Road, you can just tell by the traffic itself that the people just weren't here," said Noel.
Bishop says his business is down 73 percent this March.
"It's the police state mentality," said Bishop. "The blue lights flashing in front of our restaurants or our clubs all night long, to think that you're gonna go to jail and have it stay on your record if you're found guilty for the rest of your life for something you did at 18."
Bishop believes we won't be able to fill the void.
He said, "If you can get families to travel when the kids are in school, you should be selling swim suits to Eskimos."
When asked if he thinks the spring breakers will return if the city doesn't pass these laws next year, Bishop said, "I have been asked that question many times in the past four or five days and I believe the damage is done. I believe they will never ever rescind the laws."
Knight tells me La Vela hired 20 percent fewer employees this year. Bishop says Harpoon Harry's hired 35 fewer employees. Bishop says he doesn't believe families will travel here for spring break in March because the next time Easter falls in March is 2024. He says that combined with our cold weather makes March a hard month to attract families.
Bishop says if the city would allow the clubs and bars to extend out onto the sandy beaches, they could control events with their own security.