The answer to the aforementioned question is no, Pier Park is not killing Thomas drive, at least not in a definitive way like maybe how Rock-n-Roll killed Disco. But if you take a drive down Thomas drive and absorb the lack of traffic and innumerable “for lease” signs dressing business windows, you’ll know instantly that, although Pier Park isn’t killing the area, its influence is eye-opening.
It should be noted that the overall effect is difficult to quantify because Thomas Drive is a street, not a destination like Pier Park, so the draw is somewhat unrelated. Thomas Drive also has two identities sundered just past Grand Lagoon Bridge at the perpendicular intersection where Thomas goes East/West. At that point, a business driven, Navy Base inspired four-lane highway transforms into a quiet, scenic gulf front strip; two completely different socioeconomic streets. Pier Park’s continuing popularity has affected them differently.
Since Pier Park’s unveiling, North Thomas Drive, running from bridge to bridge, has seen a surge in development. Restaurants like Hooter’s, Sake House II and, locally acclaimed, Donut Island have been opened and flourished off Navy Base business. After speaking briefly with Debbie Johnson, one of the Donut Island’s owners, she said with confidence, “We’re doing great and growing.” Further down, staple restaurants like Captain Anderson’s and Treasure Ship have done well and so has the general area, evidenced by the opening of a small business like Sweet Racks and the groundbreaking of a franchise like Jasmine Thai restaurant. North Thomas has seen developments all over the place since Pier Park opened.
The other Thomas Drive has seen exactly the opposite; no new developments and lots, LOTS, of businesses closing down. The question remains, is Pier Park the culprit?
Kat Meeks, owner of Liza’s Kitchen, one of the businesses on that picturesque strip of Thomas Drive that has been able to thrive, quite well in fact, despite Pier Park’s success, had an interesting take on the matter. “I don’t think Pier Park is killing Thomas Drive as much as it’s just changing it. Yes, more people are staying on the west end, but that’s okay. Thomas Drive, I think, is just becoming the local’s end of the beach.”
Her take was that Pier Park’s greatest effect on Thomas Drive is accelerating its natural evolution, one that will weed out businesses that don’t fit the mold. “Panama City Beach has its own subculture, y’know?” She said. “While locals go to Pier Park as the one-stop-shop, here on Thomas Drive you have condo owners, families and locals that support businesses. Locals need some place to go too and Thomas Drive is becoming that place. It’s the local’s place and is locally driven.”
And a local haven may very well be Thomas Drive’s inevitable progressive destination. When locals, repeat tourists, eco-tourists and snowbirds want to get away from the generic areas, there is but one place for them to land and that’s Thomas Drive. One possible key to making this work is for businesses to embrace that role; to fashion themselves to cater to the locals, some tourists and flourish during the off-season. The question is how to do that.
“We’ve been able to do more creative things and think outside the box.” Kat Meeks answered when asked how other businesses can compete. “You can’t just wait for people to come to your door. We have a lot of locals in this area that are looking for some place to go. We do everything we can to make sure they know we’re here.”
Strangely, what may affect Thomas Drive more than Pier Park could be the Grand Lagoon Bridge construction. “I’m nervous about it.” Kat said. “It has two sides. Once it’d done its going to be great, but the construction phase will be tough.”
It remains to be seen how quickly Thomas Drive will get over the Pier Park effect. One thing is for sure, it will be up to the locals and businesses to reaquaint themselves if Thomas Drive is ever to return to it’s beloved status.