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Girls Gone Wild Gone

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. – “Girls Gone Wild” is turning its cameras on other destinations this year, and that’s just fine with officials who are trying to erase this city’s image as a bawdy, beer-soaked spring break capital.

“No matter how good spring break business is, having that brand on your head is not good,” Mayor Lee Sullivan said. “There is a difference between ‘having’ spring break and ‘being’ spring break.”

Sullivan is among those who are afraid that the party-hearty identity that attracts 400,000 revelers every spring will ultimately hurt the family vacation business as more aging, low-cost motels are bulldozed to make way for upscale condominiums.

A former police chief who favors cowboy hats and boots, Sullivan has waged a public campaign against the “Girls Gone Wild” video series for, among other things, furthering a raunchy image of this Florida Panhandle city.

Last year, he threatened jail to those who would ask young women to “go wild.” And he made good on that promise when the “Girls Gone Wild” producer and his crew were arrested on charges that included filming underage girls baring their breasts.

“I hope they have found some benefit from the exercise; we certainly have,” Sullivan said. “We have established that that type of entertainment is not welcome here.”

“Girls Gone Wild” features women exposing themselves at college campuses and events such as spring break and Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Camera crews are focusing this spring on Daytona Beach, Miami’s South Beach, South Padre Island in Texas, and two popular Mexican resorts, said Bill Horn, spokesman for Mantra Films Inc.

The Santa Monica, Calif., company is owned by Joe Francis, the 30-year-old creator of “Girls Gone Wild” who made millions on the idea.

Francis may visit Panama City Beach this year, but only to face 43 charges that include racketeering, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, selling obscene material and using a child in a sexual performance.

Bay County sheriff’s deputies arrested him after the mother of a 17-year-old girl complained a crew had filmed her daughter and other underage girls.

“I don’t think it’s the most welcoming environment yet,” Horn said, but he added, “We will be back in Panama City Beach some day.”

Francis’ Los Angeles lawyer, Aaron Dyer, said his client was simply exercising his First Amendment rights and did nothing illegal.

Francis won an important pretrial argument when a judge found that photographing a female under 18 exposing her breasts without physical contact is not child pornography. Dyer expects the decision to undermine at least 90 percent of the state’s case. No trial date has yet been set.

Dyer said Panama City Beach is the only place that has tried to make an example of “Girls Gone Wild.”

“If the mayor wants to change the city’s image, that’s fine,” he said. “His heart may be in the right place, but he can’t abuse the legal system to do it.”

Not everyone shares Sullivan’s zeal because spring break ranks behind only two summer months in generating cash.

“To just walk away from that level of revenue is not a prudent decision,” said Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau president and CEO Bob Warren.

Spring break, however, is destined to play a lesser role because low-priced accommodations coveted by budget-conscious spring breakers are disappearing, Warren said. He expects hotel and motel rooms to be cut nearly in half to about 4,400 by 2007 while condo units will more than and double to 18,000.

Sullivan said his crusade against “Girls Gone Wild” transcends the image issue because public nudity simply goes over the line. He said the episode also has been an opportunity for self-examination by a city with Bible Belt roots.

“No one comes to some place to participate in an exercise like that unless they think the ground is fertile,” he said. “That should have been the most disconcerting thing to this community.”

The absence of camera crews hasn’t meant that girls have gone mild at Panama City Beach. Girls still are baring plenty during wet T-shirt contests and similar events at nightclubs.

“It’s just not on camera,” said James Madison University student Brian Vaccarino, 19, of Centerville, Va.
 

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