Sharing A Vision For Our New Community.

Author: Lifelong resident of Panama City, Lesley Fontaine

For Panama City, the recent design charrette couldn’t have come at a better time. As a co-founder of Panama City Growing Strong, a volunteer organization born to give a voice to the citizens of our community, we’ve been hyper-focused on how to mold and shape our hometown for the future – well before the arrival of Hurricane Michael last October.

As a lifelong Panama City resident, my hopes were high when Mayor Greg Brudnicki and Commissioners first announced the ambitious plan to engage the entire community in this comprehensive planning process. For many of us, this was the ultimate opportunity to make lemonade out of the lemons we’ve struggled with for the last eight months.

Reflecting back on the last two weeks, I’m pleased to say that these efforts – by the city government, the experts assisting us, and all of our friends and neighbors who joined in this process – and the results we’ve already seen have exceeded even my lofty expectations. 

The key to the charrette’s success was tapping into our community’s diversity and breadth. The message that resonated loud and clear was that every person’s view mattered and will be given equal weight as the process moves forward. There were no pet projects or “special exemptions” that we had to work around – everything was on the table as we thought through how to make Panama City a desirable home for the next generation. For years, it was clear that we were losing our young people who preferred the better educational opportunities, walkable and flexible design, and the overall sense of greater economic prosperity offered by neighboring towns, cities, and counties.

During the charrette, the opportunity to modernize Panama City’s basic infrastructure – everything from water to sewage to burying the utility lines to keep them protected – rang out with urgency. The critical need to harden the underlying communications framework, especially given how much we rely on it today and how important it is to communicate in the event of a crisis, was also highlighted. We all remember how jarring it was when we could not call or otherwise get in touch with anyone for days on end.

The vital role the St. Andrews Bay plays for all of us was also evident as a priority for among many. Expanding access to the Bay for everyone who wants it (since so many residents do not keep their boats in the marina) is another path to putting a new luster on this important diamond in our community.

Particularly encouraging and helpful was the mix of those who attended some or all of the meetings, workshops, and design sessions. Diverse by virtue of age, profession, gender, and so many other factors, everyone who was there made a contribution, especially because all of us brought different talents and views with us. To cite just one example, while I was resigned to the fact that we would have to live with the less than contemporary exterior of one of the older buildings downtown – that complacency didn’t sit well with others. As a result, they came up with ideas about how it can be dressed up and enhanced without the need for a radical rebuild or complete demolition.

Collectively, we know that none of us will get 100 percent of what we suggested through this process – but that everyone will see concrete evidence of their thoughts and ideas. Truly a collaborative and collective outcome.

The charrette’s success is only the first step in the journey ahead. As a community, we know this will be a long march forward and we are heartened by the open engagement that the city government, the planning firm, and our neighbors exhibited throughout this process. We all had a lot of good ideas, and the right people were listening.

My confidence in our return as an even stronger and more vibrant community is at an all-time high. Yes, we have to put our gloves on and get to work to turn this vision into reality and certainly this will not happen overnight. I’m proud to have had the chance to join with my friends and neighbors to help chart this path forward and stand ready to get started.