PANAMA CITY — Presenting the details of the latest conceptual plan for the Downtown Panama City Marina redevelopment, developer Bob Sonnenblick was keenly aware of his audience during the most recent public hearing.
The proposal — which is a mix of multi-level development, tourist attractions and efforts to preserve and enhance local access — has split the community during the past few months and split the room Tuesday night.
Some have become passionate advocates for the Panama City Commission to move forward with the process of feeling out if the California-based developer is the right man to revitalize the marina, saying a big change is necessary. Others, like the few dozen protesters outside before the meeting, feel this is a bad deal, with too dense of a footprint, and the commission should stop it now.
So starting off the meeting, Sonnenblick tried to clear up a few misconceptions. No, he is not proposing condos, he’s proposing apartments. Yes, there is public space, about three times what was in earlier plans, he said, a direct response to community feedback. Yes, there will be space for public fishing. No, he’s not asking the city for a handout, he said.
And yes, there will be more traffic.
“The day this project opens … the traffic on Harrison Avenue will triple,” said Sonnenblick. “We are going to increase traffic. Again, I just want to be honest with everybody, if we don’t create traffic I’ve failed with this project.”
But, he said, he believes the project will take a “totally empty marina” and turn it into something that will “enliven” all of downtown. Downtown Panama City, he said at one point, should have nice things, like food trucks, farmers markets and other draws that have worked in other communities.
Following Sonnenblick’s presentation, the city had its consultant on the project, economist Owen Beitsh, give his take on the plan. After ticking through nine points, Beitsh said in his opinion Sonnenblick’s proposal is the minimum size it would take for the project to be successful.
“The massing, as it has been laid out inside this plan, is probably the minimum necessary to make the concept implementable and executable,” he said. “Even with that I reassert, that I think it does a very nice job of preserving some green space and public access.”
A tally of speakers from the audience showed their opinion was split about 50/50, with perhaps a slight lean toward speakers in favor of the project. Those in favor, which included a handful of millennials, talked about how it would help downtown, create a space for people to bring their children, bring jobs to the area and built something for the next generation.
Some who took issue with the plans opposed the entire project, such as leader of the Save the Panama City Group, Mike Rohan, who brought a Powerpoint with a picture of Sonnenblick on a zipline captioned “Panama City says adios to Sonnenblick” and who said he would find people to run against commissioners.
More commonly, people took issue with a specific piece. The moved boat ramp was a major cause for concern, as many said the new location lacks protection from the wind and adequate parking. Traffic was a major concern. And one person raised concerns a movie theater and brick-and-mortar stores are not the direction of the future.
At the end of the meeting, Sonnenblick said he “loved” the feedback, and looked forward to moving ahead pending a favorable vote from the commissioners.
“I just want to get into it,” he said.
Mayor Greg Brudnicki stressed the project still is in the early stages, and in the next phase feasibility studies will start.
“This is just a possibility. We don’t know the probability,” he said. “We want to get to the feasibility studies to find out if this is possible.”
The next public hearing will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. The commission also is considering voting to allow Sonnenblick and his team an extension on turning in their letters of intent from Oct. 1 to Oct. 15 because of delays caused by Hurricane Irma.