Panama City Beach, Fla. --- It will be either a major boon or a boondoggle, depending on who's talking.
But one thing is certain --- a proposed new Panama City-Bay County International Airport could within two years change how metro Atlantans think about getting to the sugar-white sands of the Florida Panhandle.
"Atlanta is a major market for northwest Florida," said Bob Warren, executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council. "This airport will give us a much more affordable and convenient regional air service for people from Atlanta and other areas trying to get here in a timely manner."
The Panhandle beaches, from St. George Island and Mexico Beach in the east to Panama City Beach and Destin in the west, count metro Atlanta as the major engine for their tourism and real estate booms in recent years. Atlantans account for about 21 percent of the 4.1 million people a year who visit just Panama City Beach, Warren said. And the numbers are similar for the neighboring shores of Walton and Okaloosa counties.
"Atlanta considers us their beach," Warren said.
Some environmentalists have blasted the proposed airport, and the sprawl it could create, as a potential ecological disaster. Many local pilots oppose relocating the airport, which they contend is more than adequate. But opponents admit they are fighting an uphill battle to stop the new facility, which has lined up funding and cleared all but one major regulatory hurdle.
Most beach visitors now drive the six hours from Atlanta instead of battling the limited flight schedule, small aircraft and expensive tickets associated with the airport, whose main runway is sandwiched between a bay and sprawling suburban development. The airport was built in the 1930s, and its terminal was updated about 10 years ago. About 400,000 passengers use the airport annually, with those from the Atlanta area --- about 25,000 a year --- comprising the largest segment.
Rob Schnatmeier, a Marietta lawyer, said he makes the drive to Panama City Beach to stay at a family beach house several times a year. Schnatmeier said he flew into the airport last year on a one-way ticket to meet his wife, Allison, who had driven down with their two children. He found the small, commuter flight uncomfortable and the airport inconveniently located.
A new airport, closer to the beach and with cheaper flights aboard larger planes, could attract his business, he said.
"It would cut travel time big-time," he said. "We'd probably go down more often if there were cheaper flights. Right now, it's just too far to drive for a weekend trip."
Marietta resident Ashley Riley and her husband, Michael, vacation with their children on Seagrove Beach just west of Panama City Beach.
"If it were just the two of us going for the weekend, we might look at a flight," she said. "But if we had to take the kids, we'd still drive."
Supporters and opponents of the proposed $300 million airport agree that service into the existing airport, off Florida Highway 390, far from the beaches, is limited and expensive. But they concur on little else.
"We are the highest-priced airport of the 19 commercially serviced airports in Florida," airport director Randy Curtis said. "We just don't have the room to improve at this location. We've had airlines that want to come into the area but can't because of the restrictions they face at this site."
Curtis said the airport's runways don't meet federal standards --- the runway safety, or overrun, area on the bayside of the primary runway should be 900 feet, but is only 59 feet, he said.
Backers of the new airport say it will permit the landing of larger aircraft and spur competition, resulting in cheaper fares. They have spent $40 million on plans for the new facility, and they hope to break ground this year.