‘Conservation is a huge aspect of who we are,’ says Gulf Coast Jam Co-Founder and Wild Floridian Mark Sheldon
This month’s Wild Floridian Mark Sheldon, Panama City Beach mayor and Gulf Coast Jam co-founder, talks conservation, Panama City Beach, and who he’s most excited to see at this years’ festival
When Mark Sheldon launched Gulf Coast Jam in Panama City Beach in 2013, he had no idea he would serve as the city’s mayor seven years later. Who convinced him to run for office? His 9-year-old daughter.
After he had a bad day, she reminded him of the lesson he had taught her: You can’t make a change unless you want to fix it. When he told her that to change things, he would need to become the mayor, she looked at him with childlike wonder and said, “Well, be the mayor, then.” And so, he did.
More than three years later, Sheldon helps run the largest annual event in the Panhandle — of which Live Wildly will be a proud sponsor of this year — bringing more than 30,000 people to “The World’s Most Beautiful Beach.” With crystal-clear waters and more than 24 miles of trails, Panama City Beach is a place for everyone to “Live Wildly” — from beach goers to nature lovers to country music fans.
Sheldon shows us how you can still “Live Wildly” even as mayor of a major Gulf Coast city. Learn how he is helping Panama City Beach set an example for conservation in the state, bring people joy through music and, according to Sheldon, remain the best place in the world.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Live Wildly: What makes Panama City Beach so special?
Mayor Mark Sheldon: It’s hard to stop at one or two things. The people in Panama City Beach are the most genuine, kind people you will meet. There really is Southern hospitality here. We literally live in the most beautiful, best place in the world; it’s home.
If you ever have a bad day in Panama City Beach, drive down Front Beach Road and look at the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll see the water rolling in — beautiful crystal, emerald waters and sugar white sand that you can’t get anywhere else. You can go to the Bahamas and not have beaches as beautiful as we have here. We are literally the gem of the Panhandle. I’m not selling it, I’m telling you — it is the best place in the world.
LW: How is your city prioritizing conservation?
Mayor Sheldon: Conservation is a huge aspect of who we are. You won’t find many people at Panama City Beach who don’t walk along the beach looking for little boxes where the turtles are nesting. There’s such a neat, unified feeling here where people really care about the environment, and they do a great job protecting it.
We’re working on a redevelopment project on our roadways to have bike and pedestrian lanes. We want people to be outdoors, enjoy the environment, and get out on our trail system —which currently has 24 miles of trails. We just added another 1.4 miles about two months ago and signed a $2.5 million deal to add more. Our Conservation Park has 2900-acres, and we’re working on adding another 700-acres right now.
We also have a huge water reuse system. It’s important for us to reuse the same water because we want to be good stewards of the environment, and we don’t want to use water that we don’t need, right?
LW: Why is Gulf Coast Jam important to your community?
Mayor Sheldon: Gulf Coast Jam is the largest event in the Panhandle of Florida every year. We have people from all 50 states and numerous countries, and a lot from Central Florida. The festival now brings in more than $20 million a year, with a combined $150 million of economic impact since the event began. This money goes right back into the city. I’m proud to know our festival covers things like police officers and firefighters for the year.
It makes me happy to think we’re really moving the needle and expounding on what Panama City Beach is because of what we’re doing here.
Live Wildly Fact: Live Wildly wants you to come get wild with us during Gulf Coast Jam this year! Stop by the Live Wildly Ferris Wheel to learn more about joining the movement and have a chance to snag some wild merch!
LW: What is your favorite part of the festival?
Mayor Sheldon: Since Day One, my favorite thing to do is walk around the back of the crowd and talk to people at around 7 or 8 p.m. when the crowd really gets into the music. I ask people where they’re from, what brought them here, etc. Live events are a release for the mind, body, spirit and soul. Nobody out there is thinking about the power bill or their rent or mortgage payment. They’re thinking about having a good time. We’re giving somebody quality of life and a release. I always think about that at every show when I walk around, talk to people and watch them enjoy the experience and realize that our little team gave them some joy. That’s my favorite part.
Live Wildly Fact: Who is Mayor Sheldon most excited to see at Gulf Coast Jam? Hardy. “It will be really exciting when he comes out and sings ‘Sold Out’ since the festival is sold out for the very first time this year.”
LW: How do you ‘Live Wildly’ in your daily life?
Mayor Sheldon: I’m the guy that’s outdoors in nature every day. Whether I’m playing ball with my kids or we’re on a bike path, I’m making sure that we’re enjoying the environment that we have. We’re definitely not indoor people. I mean, there’s not much more “Wildly” than running a music festival!
At the same time, Living Wildly is showing our children that there’s more to conservation than going out on the boat on the weekends. We want to make sure that we’re doing all we can to conserve the environment and use it to the best of our ability. We’re so lucky here. I wish people knew to get outside and appreciate it. Go outside, go on a bike ride, learn about a bird or tree. I have a channel in my backyard that takes you to the Gulf of Mexico, where we kayak and there’s a bald eagle nest right there. The more you’re outdoors, the more you’ll find things. I implore everyone get outside because I promise you’ll see something new every time.