How Panama City Is Using OZs to Rebuild after Hurricane, with Mark McQueen

Panama City, Florida suffered massive damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018. How is the city using Opportunity Zones to rebuild?

Mark McQueen is a former two-star general of the U.S. Army and current city manager for the City of Panama City.

Click the play button above to listen to my conversation with Mark.

Episode Highlights

  • How Mark McQueen’s background in the U.S. Army Civil Affairs Corps prepared him for his role as city manager of Panama City.
  • How the Opportunity Zones on the Intracoastal Waterway in Panama City are a difference maker for attracting investors and developers.
  • The four lines of effort that Mark is focused on to rebuild Panama City, and how Opportunity Zones fit into the strategy of addressing each line: 1) safety and security; 2) infrastructure; 3) economy; and 4) quality of life.
  • How Opportunity Zones can help to develop public private partnership (P3).
  • Examples of some of the Opportunity Zone projects currently underway in Panama City.
  • How Opportunity Zones are creating irreversible momentum for economic success and a win-win-win situation — investors, the city, and its citizens and visitors.
Mark McQueen on the Opportunity Zones Podcast

Featured on This Episode

Industry Spotlight: Panama City, FL

City of Panama City, FL

Panama City is the county seat of Bay County, Florida and is the largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola. Severely damaged in October 2018 from Hurricane Michael, Panama City is home to three Opportunity Zones, all of which have access to the Intracoastal Waterway.

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About the Opportunity Zones Podcast

Hosted by OpportunityDb.com founder Jimmy Atkinson, the Opportunity Zones Podcast features guest interviews from fund managers, advisors, policymakers, tax professionals, and other foremost experts in opportunity zones.

Show Transcript

Jimmy: Welcome to the Opportunity Zones Podcast. I’m your host, Jimmy Atkinson. My guest today is Mark McQueen, city manager for Panama City, Florida, where he joins us today. Mark, thanks for joining me.

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Mark: Hey, what a delight. Thanks so much, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Absolutely. Thanks for coming on the show, Mark. So, as I stated in the intro, Hurricane Michael brought severe destruction and tragedy in the Florida Panhandle a few years ago back in 2018, can you paint us a picture of exactly the amount of destruction that the hurricane caused and what do you need in order to rebuild your city?

Mark: Well, thanks, Jimmy. So, back in October of 2018, there was a small tropical disturbance off of the Yucatan Peninsula that started on a Sunday and it generated very quickly into a hurricane, and within three days, it was striking the Gulf Coast of the United States. Certainly, it hit directly into Bay County and Panama City. Our sister city just slightly to the east of us, Mexico Beach was totally decimated. Tyndall Air Force Base, one of the premier DOD activities that has a primary mission of air defense and air superiority here over the cap of the United States was just eliminated.

The city itself with its 34,000 residents was just totally destroyed. We had about 90% of the homes and commercial structures damaged or destroyed. We lost over a million trees in our community, and we were without power for several weeks post-landfall from that category 5 storm. It was one of the largest storms that’s ever hit the United States. And whether it’s fortunate or not, we were the point of impact taking the brunt of that whole storm that came ashore into Bay County.

Jimmy: Yeah. You were right there in the thick of it when this hurricane first made landfall on the mainland United States, and the opportunity zones were designated, I guess they were designated in Florida just a few months before the hurricane hit. And unfortunately, there are three opportunity zones located in your location of Panama City. And I want to talk about how you’re using the opportunity zone benefits as a tool to help you rebuild the city.

But first, I want to back up for a second, Mark, and get a little bit background on you. You are a former two-star army general, and you were hired to run the city of Panama City just a couple of weeks before the hurricane hit. So, some interesting timing there. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your background?

Mark: Well, I was privileged to serve this nation in the United States Army and did that for 36 years and was reaching the culmination of that time in uniform. I was going to be retiring in October of 2018. The city commissioners interviewed me and they asked me a little bit about my background. And one of the things they asked was my military experience, which really, as it turns out, was something that helped us in our recovery. I was part of the army special operations community, where we have the civil affairs corps that is part of that special forces and ranger community. And what we do is we’re trained to go in and rebuild countries to rebuild nations, their governance, the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch.

So, I have a lot of experience in how to create good governance and humanitarian assistance operations. We also have a specialty in that. So, it all emerged from the Marshall Plan coming out of World War II, and that’s the small component of the army that goes in and helps to pick up the pieces, if you will, after a conflict that takes down a nation or a nation just implodes on itself.

So, that was my background and experience. And I was fortunate to begin just a couple of weeks before the storm. And that fateful day, I still didn’t even know who all my teammates were that were on the team. But we had baptism by fire and we got in there and rolled up our sleeves and it just really was impressive to see the resolve and determination of the city employees, and in particular, the citizens of Panama City that rallied together, neighbors helping neighbors to recover from that fateful occasion.

Jimmy: Yeah. Quite a fateful occasion. It’s not every day a category 5 hurricane touches down and destroys your city the way that it did. But fortunately, it does sound like you were pretty well-suited to take on this role with your time in the civil affairs corps, as you mentioned, helped you get that experience you needed to be able to put together a game plan. And now, you step into Panama City and you see that there are actually three opportunity zones located in the city.

And I’m just taking a look at the map right now of the opportunity zones in Panama City. I see the three zones right now, and I see that all three of them feature some waterfront property, which is somewhat unique. There aren’t a lot of opportunity zones throughout the country that have waterfront, especially in the mainland United States. So, I view that as an interesting observation. How do you view the opportunity zone benefit, Mark, as a tool that you can use to help rebuild Panama City?

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Mark: So, we do have three. The only three opportunity zones that rest within Bay County are within the downtown of Panama City. And as you noted, they all are adjacent to the water. Water is very important to the State of Florida and certainly for this community, Bay County. We just have direct access to the Gulf of Mexico, we have the Intracoastal Waterway, and a robust bay that is between the Intracoastal and the Gulf of Mexico. So, it’s really intriguing when you look at it because it is a difference-maker. I mean, in helping to attract and show investors and developers that Panama City might be a good space for them to look at.

You know, the city, as we emerged from that Hurricane Michael in tatters, as tragic as that was, there was a silver lining in it is that we had an opportunity to reinvent the city. The city was 110 years old at the time, and was going in a very prescriptive direction like most cities in the nation that don’t have an opportunity to reinvent themselves. But we had that opportunity. And fundamentally, we had a citizen-driven process that helped to drive the new direction for the city of Panama City.

And through that, we did an assessment of what our strengths and our weaknesses were. And certainly, we, as I mentioned a little bit, and you just alluded to is the strength of the Intracoastal Waterway. We have the industrial base along the Intracoastal Waterway with our Port Panama City. We have Eastern Shipbuilding. We have a large paper mill as well. And those are on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Additionally, we have the two major regional hospitals within 100 miles. And so, our medical capacity is incredibly enormous in this space. And we have all the second, third, and fourth-tier medical capacity, not only doctor’s offices, but dialysis centers, cancer treatment centers, testing facilities, and the like. We also have all the financial institutions in the region are kind of headquartered here. We have the institutions of higher learning here with the Gulf Coast State College, Florida State University has their branch campus here, and Troy University has a campus here.

And then, lastly, we have the commercial corridors as we sit as the county seat, we have a preponderance of the commercial corridor. So, we think we have what it takes to move this city forward to realize its untapped potential. And the opportunity zone is one facet of that.

Jimmy: And, Mark, before we hit the record button here, you and I were catching up and you identified for me the four lines of effort that you as city manager are focusing on for Panama City. How do you see opportunity zones fitting into helping you execute those four lines of effort?

Mark: Yeah. Thanks, Jimmy. You know, drawing on some military experiences, we needed to have a campaign plan, and what was our strategy? Our strategy and objective is to become the premier city in the Panhandle of Florida. We’re the largest city between Tallahassee and Pensacola, which is within, you know, 140 miles stretch of the Panhandle of Florida.

And with that, we wanted to, in our desire to reinvent the city and take it in a new direction, we focused on four lines of effort. And those four lines of effort include, number one, our safety and security, that’s safety and security for our people, property, and our environment. We think that’s important. It’s essentially as Maslow’s hierarchy of need. If you don’t get that right, you really can’t move forward on any other things that you do. So we’re really focusing on safety and security as the first priority.

And second, third, and fourth are all important, but they’re all intertwined. And the second line of effort is our infrastructure. Being a 110-year-old city like most cities in America, we have decaying infrastructure, water lines, sewer lines, sewer treatment plants, streets, curbs, gutters, those types of things all need to be upgraded and replaced if…we’re a first world nation, 21st century. We have technology on our side, we can do better. And so, we’ve got to improve within our technology to set the foundation for future growth.

The third line of effort we’re focusing on is our economy, making it more resilient and robust. And we’ve already seen a massive influx of new businesses coming into the city since the storm. And I think they’re capturing the vision of where we’re trying to go to be that premier city.

And then the fourth line of effort that we’re focusing on is quality of life. You know, we’re a waterfront community, we have marinas, we have parks, leisure services, all those types of things that you normally assume away, but we’re also the epicenter for the arts and the history and the culture for the community. And so, we’re really trying to enrich those places and bolden those spaces of quality of life, which really makes life living in a community worthwhile.

So, all four of those are intertwined like strands of a rope. They’re all needed and necessary in order for us to achieve what we’re striving for to be the premier city in the Panhandle of Florida, and the opportunity zones fit squarely in addressing each and every one of those four lines of efforts.

Jimmy: Yeah. That’s fantastic. I think you and I both see eye to eye that there’s huge potential for opportunity zones as a P3 arrangement that a city like yours, Panama City, or, you know, any other city that’s similar to yours can really take advantage of. What do you see as being some of the greatest opportunities for potential for opportunity zones as a P3 arrangement?

Mark: So, I think one of the things that’s fundamentally different from our three opportunities zones and many of the others across the nation is that we’re changing the landscape and the environment that those investors will be coming into. Most of those spaces are blighted spaces and needed economic revitalization. And so, again, one of the silver linings of the storm is that we have access to funds that will help us rebuild our city. And so, we’re pouring literally hundreds of millions of dollars into our city to rebuild it for the future, to put in the infrastructure and the streetscapes.

As I mentioned, we lost a million trees. We’re a tree city USA. We want to replant our trees so that decades from now families can enjoy the 100-year-old oak trees that we used to have here in the city of Panama City. We’re looking to really set conditions for the success of those investors that choose to come to this community, and part of that is in what we did recently in a public-private partnership arrangement with the St. Joe Corporation at the Panama City Marina, which is really one of the treasures of this community.

Jimmy: And talk to me more about that partnership that you have with St. Joe Company. What specific opportunity zone projects are they working on or that are being undertaken elsewhere in Panama City? Can you give us some examples of some of the projects that are underway?

Mark: Sure. The St. Joe Corporation is an amazing corporate citizen. We’re so blessed to have them headquartered in this area, but they have a far reach throughout the northern part of Florida in particular. And in that public-private partnership that we developed, we knew that we wanted to make our marina a gathering space. We went through an incredible visioning process with Dover, Kohl & Partners. It’s Victor Dover and his team came in and helped us to reimagine how the city of Panama City could be in the public involvement to that whole process with charrettes and town hall meetings and focus group meetings to help envision the future of the city of Panama City.

And with that, St. Joe captured that vision, they saw where we were trying to go. And in that public-private partnership that we created, the St. Joe Corporation came forward with an unsolicited proposal saying that they wanted to invest in the opportunity zone in the downtown of Panama City. And they’re getting ready to put in a $36 million investment.

And what was unique about that arrangement with the St. Joe corporation is that they asked for no concessions from the city, they asked for no tax abatement, no financial incentives, they asked for nothing other than the opportunity to build a boutique hotel, 124-room hotel which is going to be The Indigo Hotel and then also a restaurant.

And this is the first step of a number of steps that we’ll be embarking on with the St. Joe Corporation here at our Panama City Marina. It will become a catalyst for so much more in the downtown Panama City. We’ve already seen an incredible spurring of activity in the historic downtown. We have seen actually real estate prices starting to increase, whether it’s for purchase of real estate or the rental of commercial spaces, that rate is starting to increase.

So, I think what we’re seeing is that, not only have the citizens embraced this new direction, but investors have too, which is starting to increase the demand on the real estate that’s here in this area. St. Joe has got a remarkable and extraordinary standard of high quality in all that they do. We’re very fortunate that Jorge Gonzalez, their CEO, has been personally involved in this process with us. And through it all, he’s also offered to help us with our quality of life in that he is doing profit-sharing back to the city as part of this joint venture that we’re doing together.

Jimmy: Well, that’s tremendous. And, you know, one thing that I found really interesting that you just mentioned was that they didn’t ask for anything else from the city other than just the ability to develop that land. They didn’t ask for any tax abatement or any other special treatment. The opportunity zone benefit in this case was enough for them. And I think that’s one of the main draws of this program is that it really can stand on its own sometimes. It could be a tool that can attract this type of investment to a community like yours, especially one in need of rebuilding without a whole lot of other bells and whistles. I know that some other locations, every location is different of course, but some of the locations may stack other types of tax abatements or tiffs on top to make the opportunity zone land all that much more enticing, but in your case at least, the OZ benefit was enough for the developer to come in and say, “Sure, let’s get this going.” I think that’s fantastic.

Mark: Well, it was the difference-maker. You know, they had choices. They could go anywhere. In fact, they’re doing many developments across the Panhandle of Florida right now and fully engaged in. But they chose to also invest into this space, and a very sizable one. And it was the special attributes of the opportunities zone that allows them and facilitated them to be able to do this investment. You know, Senator Tim Scott from the great state of South Carolina who helped to co-author the OZ legislation even came to our groundbreaking ceremony and we were very honored that he would do that.

And it was his tireless efforts and his vision, building on Jack Kemp’s vision for enterprise zones, he took it a step further, Senator Scott took it a step further by creating these opportunities zones so that private capital could come back in and be reinvested in spaces that needed that economic revitalization. And certainly, St. Joe Corporation and Jorge Gonzalez and the team there have fully bought into that and are putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re doing it exactly as was envisioned when Senator Scott started that journey of creating opportunity zones.

Jimmy: Oh yeah, absolutely. Senator Tim Scott was instrumental, of course, in getting that legislation packaged into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that ultimately created the opportunity zone initiative. So, that’s really neat that he was down there for your groundbreaking event not very long ago. Are there any other opportunity zone projects or developments in the works in Panama City?

Mark: So, this is the first of any significant size and investment, but we have a lot of small business investors that are also pouring themselves into our community, into the opportunity zone spaces, and in the historic downtown in particular. And so, it’s really starting to create this momentum and in our mind, hopefully, irreversible momentum for economic development, economic success. You know, what we’re striving for is to create win-win-win situations. A win for the investor and the developer that’s choosing to come into this space, a win for the city because we are investing in ourselves as well, improving all of the atmospherics that actually reduce the risk for those investors that choose to come in here, and then ultimately, a win for the citizens of Panama City and those who choose to come and be tourists in our spaces.

So, you know, I think it’s a perfect example of what right looks like. And I couldn’t be more excited to see how this will continue to be embellished and built upon as we move forward in the coming years. You know, Senator Scott talks about how hard work and community and business can improve lives in poverty. This is a perfect example of how that is being manifest here within Panama City.

Jimmy: Yeah, I agree. I think your city, Panama City offers a really good case study for how opportunity zones can work to their fullest potential. Well, Mark, it was great talking with you today. Before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about you and Panama City and St. Joe?

Mark: Well, certainly, we invite all of our citizens and your listeners to come and visit Panama City. And the easiest way to get more information about our city is at our website, pcgov.org, pcgov.org. And then, of course, for St. Joe Corporation, they have their website and they have a special page just dedicated to what they’re doing here in Panama City and the Panama City Marina with specifically the opportunity zones, and their website is pcmarinahotel.com, pcmarinahotel.com.

Jimmy, what a pleasure. It’s been a delight to talk with you, and thank you to your listeners for hearing a little bit about Panama City. And we think this is an exciting place for the future. We will fundamentally reinvent a city as a result of a tragedy, and we’re looking for teaming partners that want to come alongside to be a part of this vision and to realize the benefits that will be derived from that.

Jimmy: Fantastic. Well, Mark, thank you very much. And for our listeners out there today, I will as always have show notes available for this episode on the Opportunity Zones Database website. You can find those show notes at opportunitydb.com/podcast, and there you’ll find links to all of the resources that Mark and I discussed on today’s show. Mark, it’s been awesome. Thanks for taking some time out of your day to speak with me and my listeners today. I appreciate it.

Mark: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Jimmy. Take care.

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