PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) — First lady Michelle Obama visited the Florida Panhandle on Monday to shine a spotlight on a tourism industry battered by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
She met business and tourism leaders, walked barefoot on a beach and stopped at an ice cream shop, proclaiming the region a wonderful place to visit.
Obama’s plane landed at the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City, which was built to bring in more tourists and opened in May, just as the number of visitors began dropping due to the spill.
Obama told Panama City-area leaders that she came to show the world that not all of the Gulf Coast’s beaches were coated with oil.
“People are looking for things to do with their kids this summer and this is a wonderful place to visit,” Obama told a round-table discussion group of local leaders.
The business, tourism and political leaders told her that the region was suffering a perception problem because of oil that has washed ashore in heavier amounts along beaches to the west. They said they are feeling the economic ripples of the BP spill in the construction, fishing and restaurant industries.
Yonnie Patronis, whose family has operated a seafood restaurant in the area since 1953, told Obama that he had to take oysters off his menu — not because oysters are not safe — but because all oyster harvesters have been hired by BP.
Lonnie Andrews said work at his construction business is at an all-time low because no one is investing in the area.
Vanessa Jones, 52, was encouraged by Obama’s visit.
“It is good to know she has an understanding,” said the assistant banquet manager at the boardwalk resort were Obama spoke.
“And I appreciate her and the history she’s made, a history I thought I’d never see,” she said.
Obama later visited the Pink Pelican Ice Cream Bar, where she ordered the flavor called chocolate hurricane and talked with young children. “This is a big visit for this little town,” said Rick Dorman, owner of the ice cream store, as he worked behind the counter filling orders.