I’d be willing to bet that fewer people have seen a new airport in its initial construction phases than those who have hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And being that I’ve already made the hike (Really, I did), I’m certified to say that after touring the new airport site, this $318 million dollar triumph of construction can, in many ways, hold its own against a wonder of the world. I spent the morning touring the site and came to one very clear, incontrovertible conclusion: the new airport will be the catalyst to a Panama City Beach evolution.
I entered the airport through an access gate and drove down a wide 4-lane street which will one day be Panama City Beach’s first impression tourists. It was hardly more than a timberline, but I could see what it will become. I could see the tropical landscaping, palm trees and colorful hibiscus lining the corridor, small hotels, perhaps even resurrection of some PCB classics long closed, there for guests in transition. I could see that street packed with rental cars, big vans, taxis and shuttles transporting happy vacationers.
We reached the first construction trailers that overlooked the mammoth partially completed site. The air smelled of disturbed dirt and diesel fuel and huge tractors flattened the land in every direction. Our plan was simple, take a tour of the runway and head over to the terminal. We met up with Amy Ausley, airport Public Relations, and Bill Holman, Airport Relocation Manager, for our tour.
First we drove around the site. Already a number of construction projects whttps://pcbdaily.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=5164&_wp_original_http_referer=http%3A%2F%2Fpcbdaily.com%2Fwp-admin%2Fedit.php&message=1ere in the final phases of their completion. The retention ponds, plumbing and irrigation and much of the electrical neared completion. But what came as a surprise to me was the runway. This huge, 8,400 ft. runway, fully paved and seemingly ready to land a plane of any size, was already in its initial lighting stages. It even had an additional 2,000 ft safety area fitting comfortably into FAA standards, differing entirely from the current airport which isn’t even close to FAA standards at a measly 69 ft of safety area. Looking down the strip of unobstructed pavement I amused two thoughts: 1. having a Lamborghini or a Porsche would be a lot of fun right now and 2. It won’t be long before this is the busiest runway in all of Northwest Florida.
Surrounding the runway was more grass than you could imagine. It was a bit of a shock, but I was told by airport staff that environmental issues were taken seriously. In fact, the DEP fine of $257,000 for environmental damages was taken so seriously by airport staff that there have been talks of in-kind donations of land for mitigation or time on future environmental projects.
We came around the runway and, after spending a few minutes stuck in rain-mud, we hit the terminal where I could not have been more blown away. The parking lot is completely finished needing only a final coat of tar and painting to be ready for business, and as we came upon the massive terminal, a few men worked on the bridge that lead to the passenger unloading area, a sort of gateway to the future. We inched over and could see the airport terminal in its entirety.
The structure was so close to completion, it was easy to imagine it in its final form. All the steel was up and fitted, the roof was over 90% complete and the curbs of the drivelanes were already done. Even architectural aesthetics like huge 100% harvested wood overhangs that will shield passengers from the rain was completed. We stepped inside the open doorway to find much of the interior shaping into its final form as well. Office areas, ticketing counters, baggage and security checking features (which will be fitted with the most elaborate security system to date) and administrative areas were quite visible, the whole of it designed like the existing airport only much, much bigger. I could see all the anxious vacationers already, families, spring breakers and all sorts of wayfarers bustling up and down the halls ready to start their getaway to Panama City Beach.
Upstairs were more administrative areas as well as the nearly completed passenger loading areas and gate access. There was enough space for seven total gates more than double what the current airport can house. There were gaping areas for windows and also in the ceiling for sky lights that will literally flood the airport with natural light. Out the window, in the distance the fire safety, storage and maintenance buildings were nearly ready for use. I could also see the imposing control tower, a 12 story 120 ft structure, soon to be topped in metal framing.
As I walked the gate areas, the realization of the airport’s effect on Panama City Beach struck me profoundly. There have been all sorts of discussion on this topic, even debates started by yours truly, but once I visited the site, I understood. This airport really will change everything. Consider how well Panama City Beach has done for a destination the last 20 years. For such a small place, we’ve done quite well; even now during a recession we continue to do well. All this progress and prosperity, it’s difficult to realize that, truly, PCB development and growth has been choked by the current airport. And it may not be until the first 737 lands that people begin to understand what the new airport will amount to, but rest assured the impact will be gamechanging. And it starts with carriers.
Because New Orleans and Jacksonville are the closest Southwest carriers, and based on their business model, it is very likely Southwest will be Panama City Beach’s low cost carrier. What that simple sounding circumstance translates to is the curing of Panama City Beach’s greatest economic hindrance: the off season. That time of year will be completely transformed by cheap flights inflating a dreary few months into full-on seasonal status. Can you imagine what being a year-round destination will be like? We’d be a mini-Miami. Even if you think of it on a smaller scale, as I toured the incomplete airport, it occurred to me that 737s will carry anywhere from 138-200 people. That is significantly more than the current 74 people on a single flight into the existing airport. That’s double the people arriving at a deeply reduced rate. And that’s not just with Southwest. Our current flagship carrier, Delta, will no longer be limited by the parameters of the existing airport and flight costs will drop making Panama City Beach the most likely landing place for vacationers. No more Tallahassee and no more Pensacola.
The date of completion of the airport will play a major role as well. The airport will be completed around the same time analysts and pundits predict the economy to rebound. Panama City Beach will see a surge of development and increases in capital.
This evolution of Panama City Beach, by way of the new airport, will force certain deflected issues to be seriously discussed. Issues like new improved developments, form-based coding, hospitality training and more. For me, all this had been but talking points, theories and ideas. But when I walked down the massive airport, the area on which it sits and the ease with which vacationers will get to PCB ,it became quite clear to me. Because of the new airport, 10 years from now Panama City Beach will be a completely different place: suddenly feeling much closer to Miami than ever before.
A side note: Before I left the site I stopped by the construction trailer to thank the staff. On the wall there was a big digital clock counting down the time remaining. At the time, the clock read 283 days, 12 hours, 54 minutes, 23 seconds and counting. Everything is on schedule.