Never say "all."
If 36 years in the Army hadn't taught me that, then the culmination of the first two weeks of my job as the City Manager of Panama City, Florida certainly did. From Iraq to Afghanistan to posts across the U.S., I have been extremely fortunate to serve our country as an officer in the U.S. military – and thought I'd seen it all.
I was wrong.
With an impact like a hammer on a plate glass window, Category 5 Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018, with a force not seen since Hurricane Andrew leveled parts of South Florida 26 years earlier. And although I had accepted my new job in February – the city gave me a grace period so that I could finish my service in the Army, conclude a civilian job as a church business administrator, and donate a kidney to one of my fellow parishioners – nothing prepared any of us for this hurricane and its brutal aftermath.
Yet, even as the clouds parted and the enormity of the challenge ahead became clear, so too did the community's resolve to take control of its future. Devastated as the city was, the sense of inspiration to rebuild Panama City with renewed opportunities for all was palatable.
From the outset, we adopted twin fundamental tenets: we would surpass the pre-storm status quo, and this initiative would only be successful if it was truly driven from the "bottom up" and not dictated from the "top down." And every undertaking had to deliver tangible benefits to improve the safety and security, quality of life, vital infrastructure, and/or economy of the newly reimagined Panama City.
The series of citizen-driven public events we kicked-off in June 2019 to shape anew the city's historic downtown and waterfront are perfectly illustrative of this effort. Neglected over the years, there was now a once-in-a-century blank canvass on which everyone in Panama City could paint. Embracing this opportunity, hundreds of neighbors joined the design teams to ideate around their vision, join the process via open microphone sessions, surveys, and hands-on work with maps to render a key part of the blueprint for a new Panama City. Earlier this year, we (virtually) staged additional events across other equally historic neighborhoods within the city.
Often, the simplest of statistics brings definition to particularly important, albeit unglamorous, accomplishments. As a case in point, in the 18 months following the storm we removed the equivalent of 40 years' worth of debris (3.9 million-plus cubic yards) mostly in the form of downed trees and limbs, compared to a pre-hurricane average annual collection of 100,000 cubic yards per year.
Indeed, there is nothing more foundational to rebuilding a community than housing. I am especially proud of the almost $40 million we secured in State funding to establish the ReHouse Bay initiative to help Panama City and Bay County residents secure affordable housing. With direct financial assistance of up to $50,000 for down payments and closing costs, to repair and recovery aid, to help preventing foreclosure and short-term mortgage assistance, to short-term rental assistance, these programs are key to the city's long-term vibrance and resolution to its acute shortage of housing stock. This effort has already provided help to more than 300 applicants, with hundreds more in the pipeline – and more than 5,000 houses currently in development or under construction.
Equally important, we've seen a surge in economic opportunities for our residents. Post hurricane, we have supported the opening of 436 new businesses, for a total of 3,288 – which is 171 more than existed before the storm.
With companies from Suzuki Marina Technical Center to Clark and Son Inc. moving to Panama City, existing employers like Eastern Shipbuilding expanding, Verizon inaugurating 5G service (making the city one of the first in the country equipped with this high-speed service), and the St. Joe Company announcing a long-term land lease to bring a new hotel and restaurant to the historic downtown waterfront district, the city's growth is only accelerating.
For those who ask, "are we done yet?" – the answer is an unequivocal "not by a long shot." Two years on from the storm, our community's steadfast joy of hope for a better and brighter future simply wouldn't permit this collective commitment to stall. Not even for a moment. We press on to become the Premier City in the Florida Panhandle.
Mark McQueen is the City Manager in Panama City, Florida. Prior to his service with the City, he spent 36 years with the U.S Army, retiring as an Army Major General.