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Mexico Beach Sees Busy Memorial Day Weekend As Visitors Return

Families and friends enjoyed the warm Gulf waters and the sand on Saturday, May 23, 2020 in Mexico Beach, Florida.
Valerie Crowder
Families and friends enjoyed the warm Gulf waters and the sand on Saturday, May 23, 2020 in Mexico Beach, Florida.

An influx of visitors to Mexico Beach over the weekend signals tourism is off to a better start ahead of the summer vacation season compared to this time last year.

“It’s packed - people are everywhere,” said Mayor Al Cathey after driving down the town’s main road on Saturday afternoon. “The power of that white sand is remarkable.”

Cathey says he didn’t expect so many people to arrive in town for Memorial Day weekend amid the pandemic. “You can’t barely pull off the road,” he said. “I don't know how much gathering we can do on the beach and not have a problem."

Many beachgoers were staying with family who live in town and have traveled to the area for Memorial Day weekend in the past. Some visitors were arriving for stays in vacation rental condos, while others were enjoying the beach for the day.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Michael devastated the town, its residents still lack a grocery store, a gas station and a restaurant where people can eat inside. Cathey says all of these amenities are needed to revitalize the local tourism economy.

“People who come here to enjoy the beach, they don’t want to sit at a table in the hot sun and eat their lunch,” he said. “They want to go in and sit down and have a glass of wine and enjoy. We don’t have that.”

As restaurant owners rebuild, a few are serving locals, tourists and transient workers from food trucks. The local coffee shop was the first business to reopen in its original building after the storm. People can shop for essentials at an 800-square-foot food market, the marina store and a hardware store, which Cathey's family owns.

“I’m very grateful for what is here and what’s being built here,” Cathey said. “We’ve just got to fill in the holes.”

Before the storm, the town had more than 400 vacation rental units, including rooms at four local motels and inns, he said. Today, he says, the town has fewer than 50. And they're all condos and townhomes.

“We don’t have many rentals,” Cathey said. “We have no motels, no hotels.”

Condo Reopened in Mexico Beach Florida.jpg Valerie Crowder
Guests are booking stays at Paradise Shores condos in Mexico Beach as the town's slow hurricane recovery continues.

Vacation Rentals Coming Back Online

Forgotten Coast Property Management is in charge of accommodating guests in 34 of those rentals.

“We have been totally slammed,” said Hunter Daniel, a reservationist at the company’s Mexico Beach office. “The phone was off the hook basically until Friday afternoon.”

Daniel says she was surprised by how much business picked up on Wednesday after the state lifted the ban on short-term vacation rentals for eight counties in the panhandle.

“We were just very concerned this pandemic would cause more damage,” Daniel said. “But nobody hesitated whatsoever.”

The company managed more than 100 rental units in the town before the Category 5 storm damaged or destroyed all of them almost two years ago, Daniel said. Last summer, 10 were back on the market.

“Most homes that were available for rent last summer just had minor damage and minimum renovation and were good to go within a month or two.”

Since then, the number of vacation rentals back online has more than tripled. And she expects more will become available later this summer as renovations finish on many units. “Once the final inspections and approvals are done, owners are expecting to put them right back on the rental market.”

Mexico Beach's Community Development Council’s bed tax collections are beginning to increase again after they plummeted following the hurricane, said Wylie Petty, who serves on the council.

“We have not drawn a zero. And each month it ticks up just a little bit,” he said. “The Driftwood Inn is down. The El Governor is down. The El Governor RV Park is down. And so many other rental houses were destroyed. But we’re coming back.”

Petty is also the property manager of the iconic four-story high-rise El Governor Motel and its RV park next door. The motel had about 100 suites - that included full-service kitchens - available for guests before the hurricane damaged more than half of the building, he said.

“It’s going to be great when it finally does reopen. Everything is going to be new," he said. "We hope to be open next summer."

Construction is taking longer to finish because the motel's lobby, gift shop and pool might not be elevated high enough off the ground to satisfy new building code requirements, he said.

"We're having to rethink a lot of things to adhere to the new code."

Petty says the RV park next door will reopen later this summer.

"We will fill up. We have such a loyal following," he said. If visitors don't occupy all the spaces, then transient workers in town might stay there instead of driving to neighboring towns to sleep, he said. "It would be more convenient for them to rent a couple of RVs."

Loyal Visitors Returning

Chris Phillips, 47, lives in Mexico Beach. He says he’s noticed a recent uptick in visitors coming to the area.

“After Hurricane Michael, there was nothing here,” he said. “We went a whole season with no vacation rentals. This year, you have Paradise Shores, you have Tranquil Harbor, you have different condos coming back online. You have people getting their houses back up. So, definitely this season. There’s an uptick in it.”

On Saturday, Phillips was enjoying the beach with friends and family, some of whom were visiting from Georgia. “People who come to Mexico Beach own property here or their family own property here,” he said.

Jenna Lindsey, 27, traveled from southern Georgia to spend a week with her in-laws who live in the small beach town. She says this isn’t the first Memorial Day weekend she’s spent there with family.

“It’s homey,” Lindsey said. “We’re from a very small town, so it feels like we’re going from home to another home.”

Ryan Tindell, 45, also drove from his hometown in Georgia to stay with in-laws on the beach. He says he's been visiting periodically since the hurricane.

“I’m glad to see that it’s rebuilding. It’s a good place for family and friends to hang out,” he said.

Mayor Al Cathey expects it will take at least five years before the town looks the same way it did before the hurricane. But this won't stop people from visiting, he said.

“People love us. We’re not commercialized. We’re not high-rise. We aren’t bright lights. We aren’t ferris wheels and bumper car rides," Cathey said. "The beach is what we have."

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Guests are booking stays at Paradise Shores condos in Mexico Beach as the town's slow hurricane recovery continues.
Valerie Crowder /
Guests are booking stays at Paradise Shores condos in Mexico Beach as the town's slow hurricane recovery continues.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.