City upgrades public beach access walkways
No more splinters on your way to the sandy beach.
Parks & Recreation Department carpenters Art Medema and Stephen Beaupre work on improving public beach access areas.
The Panama City Beach Parks & Recreation Department has undertaken a massive beach access refurbishment project which started in 2017 and is ongoing.
The city allocated a small amount of funds two years ago to maintain and repair the 55 public beach access entrances used by locals and visitors alike, but the $30,000 allocation was not enough to keep the gateways and extended walkways in good condition for the public.
Most are made of wood and nails, and a 365-day exposure to the Florida sun and the salt of the Gulf has taken its toll on those materials. At some access points, the wood had warped and bowed, nails had rusted and worked their way up, and splinters were a common occurrence for those seeking to enjoy a day at the beach. Some of the entryways were last rebuilt after Hurricane Opal, which hit in October 1995.
Parks & Recreation Director Jim Ponek had staff do a thorough assessment of public accesses 24 to 76B, which run the length of the city limits, from the eastern most access at Joan Drive, which intersects with Thomas Drive, to the city’s western most entrance near Seakove Street and Front Beach Road.
“We began a systematic upgrade, identifying those in the worst condition and those that got the most traffic,” Ponek said. “We are replacing the weathered wood with a manufactured composite decking that won’t bow, warp or rot.”
The surface is also not as hot on bare feet and is more durable.
“We do things like this mostly so our residents and tourists who use these public access points don’t get hurt. Because of the nature of the environment, the walkways are subject to twisting, rotting and debris. We want to make sure people have a safe visit,” Mayor Mike Thomas said.
The beach accesses are made of sand, wood, or concrete and wood. A few, like the ones by the city pier and the dog park, have showers. When the entrances were evaluated in 2016, 12 were identified as being in poor condition and another 28 were listed in fair condition.
Ponek said the plan to upgrade the accesses was put in place in October 2016. The first few months involved a general clean up and safety check and replacing deteriorating boards and removing trash.
“Then in January of 2017 we kicked off the construction phase and started making real progress last summer.”
To date eight entrances have been completely refurbished or replaced. Work started in the center point of the beach on both sides of Russell-Fields Pier. From there, construction has jumped west, then back east, then west. Refurbishment was grouped by location and staggered from one end of the beach to the other to create improved access all along the beach.
Some public access points in the construction zone of the Front Beach Road CRA (Community Redevelopment Area) have been delayed by ongoing construction and two are awaiting input from the Department of Environmental Protection due to nearby wetlands. Construction is also rerouted in some areas due to turtle nesting season.
An estimated $65,000 has been spent thus far on materials for the project. Parks & Rec has budgeted $100,000 for materials and another $100,000 for labor for the project this year. “It does save the city money because we are doing this in-house,” Ponek said.
The replacement of wooden railings has been prioritized to reduce the risk of splinters.
Refurbishment is a five-year project, with ongoing maintenance and repair.
“People had complained about the accesses,” Ponek said. “In some cases the accesses have been more difficult to maintain due to the sand dunes.”
The project also involves some landscape maintenance work. Depending on the location of the access and what the adjoining property is, some concrete work is required, such as at the city pier.
“The bottom line is, we want all of our local residents and the 17 million people who visit Panama City Beach every year, to have full access to our sandy beaches,” Ponek said. “All our visitors contribute a great deal to our local economy. We want to always do our part to ensure they have easy access to world’s most beautiful beaches.”
Thomas said he has not personally received any complaints on the condition of the accesses, but he has had questions about the location of handicap access.
There are seven handicapped accessible public access points including two along South Thomas Drive, one near Churchwell Drive, one between the city and county piers, and three west of Highway 79. The most widely used access points are 56 and 57 at the dog park and city pier.
Aquatics Supervisor Wil Spivey is interviewed by Erin Morgan for a story airing on WMBB.