Is Pier Park Killing Thomas Drive?

by August 15, 2009 • 10 comments

The answer to the aforementioned question is no, Pier Park is not killing Thomas drive, at least not in a definitive way like maybe how Rock-n-Roll killed Disco. But if you take a drive down Thomas drive and absorb the lack of traffic and innumerable “for lease” signs dressing business windows, you’ll know instantly that, although Pier Park isn’t killing the area, its influence is eye-opening.

It should be noted that the overall effect is difficult to quantify because Thomas Drive is a street, not a destination like Pier Park, so the draw is somewhat unrelated. Thomas Drive also has two identities sundered just past Grand Lagoon Bridge at the perpendicular intersection where Thomas goes East/West. At that point, a business driven, Navy Base inspired four-lane highway transforms into a quiet, scenic gulf front strip; two completely different socioeconomic streets. Pier Park’s continuing popularity has affected them differently.

Since Pier Park’s unveiling, North Thomas Drive, running from bridge to bridge, has seen a surge in development. Restaurants like Hooter’s, Sake House II and, locally acclaimed, Donut Island have been opened and flourished off Navy Base business. After speaking briefly with Debbie Johnson, one of the Donut Island’s owners, she said with confidence, “We’re doing great and growing.” Further down, staple restaurants like Captain Anderson’s and Treasure Ship have done well and so has the general area, evidenced by the opening of a small business like Sweet Racks and the groundbreaking of a franchise like Jasmine Thai restaurant. North Thomas has seen developments all over the place since Pier Park opened.

The other Thomas Drive has seen exactly the opposite; no new developments and lots, LOTS, of businesses closing down. The question remains, is Pier Park the culprit?

Kat Meeks, owner of Liza’s Kitchen, one of the businesses on that picturesque strip of Thomas Drive that has been able to thrive, quite well in fact, despite Pier Park’s success, had an interesting take on the matter. “I don’t think Pier Park is killing Thomas Drive as much as it’s just changing it. Yes, more people are staying on the west end, but that’s okay. Thomas Drive, I think, is just becoming the local’s end of the beach.”

Her take was that Pier Park’s greatest effect on Thomas Drive is accelerating its natural evolution, one that will weed out businesses that don’t fit the mold. “Panama City Beach has its own subculture, y’know?” She said. “While locals go to Pier Park as the one-stop-shop, here on Thomas Drive you have condo owners, families and locals that support businesses. Locals need some place to go too and Thomas Drive is becoming that place. It’s the local’s place and is locally driven.”

And a local haven may very well be Thomas Drive’s inevitable progressive destination. When locals, repeat tourists, eco-tourists and snowbirds want to get away from the generic areas, there is but one place for them to land and that’s Thomas Drive. One possible key to making this work is for businesses to embrace that role; to fashion themselves to cater to the locals, some tourists and flourish during the off-season. The question is how to do that.

“We’ve been able to do more creative things and think outside the box.” Kat Meeks answered when asked how other businesses can compete. “You can’t just wait for people to come to your door. We have a lot of locals in this area that are looking for some place to go. We do everything we can to make sure they know we’re here.”

Strangely, what may affect Thomas Drive more than Pier Park could be the Grand Lagoon Bridge construction. “I’m nervous about it.” Kat said. “It has two sides. Once it’d done its going to be great, but the construction phase will be tough.”

It remains to be seen how quickly Thomas Drive will get over the Pier Park effect. One thing is for sure, it will be up to the locals and businesses to reaquaint themselves if Thomas Drive is ever to return to it’s beloved status.

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1 jamnolfin August 15, 2009 at 1:33 pm

I think Kat was the wrong person to interview, their business booms. I wish they would come to the west end. I drive to Thomas all the time from the west end for J. Michaels, Schooners, Newbys, Foghorns. i like the local haunts


2 Gregg August 15, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Very good article Cebo, I think you hit the nail on the head on in order to prosper, a business on Thomas Drive has to be less generic and touristy.
Our Condo is on Thomas Drive and surprisingly our occupancy is up considerably and while rates have been discounted, even our net is still better than last year. Granted we have worked on it but still the numbers don’t lie.
In addition I look at some of the business’s around us. I could be wrong but I see our three neighborhood restaurants, Schooners, Montego Bay, and Scampi’s on most evenings have folks waiting outside to be served. They seem to be doing well in spite of Pier Park and this economy. I’m sure there are others but these are examples that we see.


3 Troy August 18, 2009 at 8:35 am

The issue with Thomas Drive is that there’s nothing on it except local restaurants. You can only eat so many times. That, and the northern side of it just looks bad. 😉


4 Jack Bishop August 18, 2009 at 9:22 am

Pier Park is a fact of life, the Main Street of Panama City Beach. Thomas Drive does not compete; Thomas Drive must thrive on its own uniqueness with what it has to offer. Pineapple’s to the NSA is an alternative to Pier Park only with what is has to offer. Yes, Pier Park has affected Thomas Drive, just like it has affected all of Panama City Beach. The hope here is that is has affected us for the better, and I for one feel it has.


5 Chris Goswick August 18, 2009 at 3:35 pm

I am not local but visit Panama City Beach each year and most times more than once. For more than 14 years we have stayed on the east side of the beach. This past visit we stayed on the west end of the beach near pier park and it was very convenient to get to pier park, but we quickly realized we really enjoy the east side much better. That end of Panama City Beach to us is what we are comfortable with. Although I enjoy the new stores and restaurants at pier park we would rather be on the east end of the beach and make a visit to pier park but spend most of our time on Thomas Drive. I think the park has been a good thing for the area but when things settle down and after the new wears off everyone will benefit from the new attraction. By the way we just booked our trip in October and again we will be on the East end of the beach.


6 Gregg August 18, 2009 at 5:20 pm

As I mentioned prior, our condo is on the East end. We purposely wanted to be away from the busy West end as where we are we can safely walk without getting run over by the traffic. We certainly enjoy visiting Pier Park but the one or two times we go while down, it is much easier fighting the traffic just a couple times than every time we get out.
I think Pier Park is great for our area, it certainly is a benefit, I’m just glad we are on the other end of the beach. I know everyone does not feel that way and likes to be “close to the action”, but at least there is a choice.
I remember when the area around Pier Park was the “quiet end” and that’s where we stayed for many years.


7 James August 18, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Troy, there actually is a “non-local” restaurant along the beach stretch of Thomas Drive. . .just yards from the Gulf. It’s called Waffle House — and it’s open 24hrs!

One of the allures of this section of beach is that there are NOT any brand name restaurants! There’s a sizable demographic that likes a less commercial, family-oriented experience with things they cannot also get at home. Places like Bishop’s, Schooners, Treasure Ship, Liza’s Kitchen, etc. are very appealing b/c they can only be experienced along Thomas Drive in PCB!


8 James August 19, 2009 at 10:27 pm

For those who think I contradicted myself in the prior comment, I don’t consider Waffle House to be in the same category as a “brand name” family restaurant.

Local establishments like those mentioned above set themselves apart from the numerous Red Lobsters, Olive Gardens and Chili’s — which most folks can go to in their hometowns any night of the week.


9 karen smith August 20, 2009 at 9:59 pm

I just love it. Isn’t it wonderful when you have these great articles that make people want to chime in. I love that we have something for everyone here at the beach. I myself have always been a little west end girl and continue to be so and I can not get west enough. But having said that I enjoy all that Panama City Beach has to offer and the exiting thing to me as things ebb and flow we come up with new and better ideas to add to our favorite areas. The beach is just plain beautiful on the West in the middle and to the East, something for all kinds of people. I still can not believe I get to live and work and find joy here everyday and thanks again CEBO for bringing great conversation to life.


10 William W November 11, 2009 at 6:20 pm

I rent 5 months every year in the east end of Thomas Drive .. nice and quiey usually. Waffle house, Lisa’s, and Schooners are favourite spots to eat and meet locals. We visit Pier Park but only occasionally. Other favourites: Salt Water grill and in the west, Dusties for wings. Great pub and friendly staff
Bill the Canadian guy