- - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla.— They came, they puked, they left.

That was how Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention Visitors Bureau President and CEO Nicki Grossman summarized Fort Lauderdale’s experience with beach partyers when her city was a spring break mecca in the 1980s.

Though 380,000 or so revelers spent roughly $110 million in Fort Lauderdale in 1985, the six-week-long party had worn out the patience of residents and politicians, who demanded change that year and got it.

New laws repelled partyers, who then swarmed Daytona Beach, where mass media — especially MTV — spread out the welcome mat. That city also grew weary of traffic jams and wild revelers, who often flouted local laws. A hotelier who ignored the changes was arrested on charges of having too many students in his hotel. Police forced the students to leave the hotel.

Panama City Beach became the next spring break capital. After 20 years, the gulfside community with 12,000 residents is now on the verge of enacting tougher laws designed to discourage out-of-control partying on its sugar-white beaches. A house party shooting, a public gang rape, two missing girls and ill treatment of disabled veterans at a beach retreat made some of this year’s headlines.

The March 28 shooting left seven people injured and prompted the city to enact an emergency ordinance banning alcohol on the beach through April 18. At two meetings in May, City Council members voted to ban alcohol on the beach for March 2016. A final hearing June 11 will determine whether the ban and other spring break ordinances will become law.

The bad news coming out of Panama City Beach this spring has motivated hundreds of residents to take action and pack council meetings. Ms. Grossman said Fort Lauderdale’s spring break troubles 30 years ago weren’t as bad.

“We never experienced some of the things that are happening in Panama City Beach,” said Ms. Grossman, who served on the Broward County Commission during the peak of Fort Lauderdale’s spring break frenzy in the 1980s. “We closed down that business before it evolved into what it’s become now.”

Fort Lauderdale’s marketing shift to families and international tourists has long since paid off, Ms. Grossman said. Spring break visitors spent $1.2 billion there last year.

After clearing out beer-funneling and other rowdy behavior by college students, Daytona Beach also focused on families and conventions.

Tom Caradonio, executive director of the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, credits the move for helping generate more revenue with fewer headaches.

“Economically, it has made a tremendous difference in what spring break used to contribute,” Mr. Caradonio said.

Facing increasing pressure from residents and county officials, Panama City Beach City Council members have been pursuing spring break ordinances other than an alcohol ban on the beach.

At its May 26 meeting, the council gave preliminary approval for an ordinance that would forbid people from throwing objects, spitting off a balcony or climbing to another balcony. At that same meeting, the council banned drinking in commercial parking lots.

The proposed alcohol ban is the most controversial. Opponents say it will discourage spring breakers and deliver a severe blow to local jobs and the springtime economic windfall. Those supporting the ban say increasingly violent spring break seasons hurt property values and scare off the more lucrative family demographic, something Daytona Beach experienced in the 1990s.

Outrage over spring break activities reached critical mass this season, with reports of behavior ranging from anti-social to criminal.

In March, a University of Florida fraternity was forced to close after some of its members hurled drunken insults and spat at disabled veterans during the city’s annual Warrior Weekend Retreat.

Also that month, seven people, including three college students from Alabama, were shot during a house party. Three of the victims, one of whom was shot in the head, were critically wounded.

In April, a video showed several men having sex with an unconscious young woman in broad daylight on the beach as bystanders looked on.

Tense, crowded City Council meetings had to be moved to a high school to accommodate hundreds. Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst threatened to use police during the May 12 hearing.

Before the house party shooting, Panama City Beach Council member Josie Strange was the sole supporter of the alcohol ban. At the past two council meetings, Ms. Oberst and three other council members voted in support of the ban.

“I’d like to say that I’m happy, but it’s not over,” Ms. Strange said, noting that the final public hearing next week will determine whether the alcohol ban and other spring break laws will go into effect.

How the party started

Sex sells, and that was true in 1960, when “Where the Boys Are” was published to popular acclaim. The novel became an even more popular movie featuring Fort Lauderdale as a spring break hot spot for fun-loving college students, who, as writer Glendon Swarthout noted, “play house” with the opposite sex.

John Laurie, whose dissertation on the history and economics of spring break has been widely publicized, said “Where the Boys Are” transformed Fort Lauderdale into the nation’s first major spring break destination.

By the late 1960s, residents who already had concerns about traffic, public drunkenness and risky behavior became even more vexed by an increase in illicit drug use. In 1985, when MTV arrived and began broadcasting spring break antics to the rest of the nation, including live shots of partially clothed coeds, the party in Fort Lauderdale was over.

New laws banned alcohol on the beach and overnight parking. Hoteliers got together and aggressively enforced occupancy policies.

In 1986, during Fort Lauderdale’s spring break exodus, Daytona Beach Mayor Larry Kelly made it clear on national television that revelers were welcome to his city’s larger beach.

Mr. Caradonio said city elders hired MTV for about $100,000 to showcase Daytona Beach as the nation’s new spring break destination.

Spring break videos ran the whole year on MTV, giving viewers the impression that Daytona Beach was a huge, nonstop party. Hundreds of thousands of students descended on the city year after year. By 1994, Mr. Kelly said, the city realized it had made a mistake by thinking it could handle such revelry. New laws soon quashed the party.

Panama City Beach seized the opportunity. The sleepy beach community was then home to roughly 4,000 people and 27 miles of beaches. Club La Vela owner Patrick Pfeffer recalled watching Panama City Beach grow into the nation’s next spring break capital.

Panama City Beach was relatively unknown until MTV, E! Television, TNT and Travel Channel filmed network specials at Club La Vela, broadcasting our beaches and nightlife to millions of Americans from coast to coast, sparking an interest that has catapulted Panama City Beach forward,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “Spring break, like any other segment of our tourism, should be embraced and welcomed, not ostracized and snubbed.”

House parties and pop-up clubs

Patrons of Club La Vela agree. Louis R., from Jersey City, New Jersey, posted on Yelp: “This place is the reason they created those off-the-shelf pregnancy self-tests. Pure hedonistic activities that would make Caligula proud. If you’ve never been to a foam party, then you haven’t lived.”

The emergence of social media has played a significant role in motivating massive crowds. According to law enforcement, online posts point the way to clubs, cheap restaurants and lodging, but also lead to drug and prostitution transactions and quickly fill house parties and pop-up clubs with hundreds of patrons.

Like their name implies, pop-up clubs spring up at night in small businesses that usually serve as restaurants during the day.

Although house parties and pop-up clubs may be cheaper and cozier alternatives, these smaller venues have been criticized for parking problems, fire code violations and poor security.

Spring break challenges, including this season’s record arrests and gun seizures, continue to trouble Panama City Beach resident Darrell Sellers. Mr. Sellers, a condominium manager, points to stagnant and even declining property values that he says are owed to out-of-control spring break seasons. In response, Mr. Sellers started the Facebook Page PCB Owners Alliance in 2013.

That site led to the creation of Citizens for a New Panama City Beach, a 501(c)(4) group that has attracted hundreds of concerned residents at various meetings. On Mother’s Day, roughly 200 members of the group donned matching T-shirts, held signs calling for strong changes to spring break and marched across a popular bridge. Vehicles honked in support.

In response, business owners, employees and residents who oppose drastic changes to spring break, such as an alcohol ban, started the Facebook page Citizens United for PCB. Though the group has attracted smaller turnouts at City Council meetings, members remain vocal that proposed spring break laws will mean heavy job losses and serious harm to the economy.

Despite the controversy, Mr. Laurie remains convinced that spring break in Panama City Beach is coming to an end and that it’s anyone’s guess where the next spring break capital will emerge.

“It’s really going to be dependent on which location is willing to be the most lax in their rules and most aggressive in courting students,” Mr. Laurie said.

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