Make us your home page

Community pushes back against too much 'Disney' on the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks


Talk of changes at the Sponge Docks often comes back to how to strike this elusive balance:

Old, but not too old. New, but not too new.

As a popular local refrain goes, this isn't Disney World.

Merchants have pushed back against recent concepts for $1 million in city-funded improvements at the Sponge Docks, illustrating the tense battle to preserve the area's heritage and history while giving it a much-needed sprucing up.

"I don't want to reinvent the wheel," said Sponge Exchange owner Louis Pappas, "but I just want to clean up the wheel."

Sponge Docks business owners feel that what they have now works. Tourism officials often cite an estimate of nearly 1 million visitors to the docks every year.

But could it work better? How? And would too much newness lead to a bust?

Many Tarpon Springs families are fiercely protective of the commercial sponging and fishing industry there, even as it has waned in recent years.

"We became a tourist attraction not by design — by accident," said longtime Sponge Docks businessman George Billiris.

The sponging industry and Greek community set the scene. Tourism naturally followed.

"So the history tells you what it is," he said. "All you have to do is open up your eyes and look at it."

The draw at the docks isn't the Greek food sold in restaurants lining the Anclote River, said sponge diver Taso Karistinos, who captains the Anastasi. The draw isn't the T-shirts and knickknacks sold in the curio shops.

It's the allure of the working sponge boats that draws tourists, he said. Lose that and lose the tourist base.

"They come here to see the historic boats," he said. "They want to see the action. They want to hear the story about it … If you take the sponges out of here, the show is over."

Initially, the proposed improvements project played up the feel of the Sponge Docks' Night in the Islands events, where Dodecanese Boulevard closes off for dancing and music in the street.

Concepts suggested included building an observation tower to pull more tourists toward the west end of the Sponge Docks, making some of the street pedestrian-only around a plaza and amphitheater, and creating a riverwalk along the water's edge.

The idea of blocking off the street especially riled people, who worried it would kill the flow of traffic to businesses and boats.

And in many minds loomed the fear that elaborate changes would dress up the docks too much — like a theme park.

"We're not trying to be Epcot Greece on the Sponge Docks," said Mary Klimis Coburn, an attorney who represents several Sponge Docks business and property owners. Her family also has a business interest in a shop, Tarpon Sponge Co. "There are some great ideas, but they just need to be nuanced to where they keep it authentic."

What seemed to resonate best with locals were simple beautification efforts: installing street lights, paving the street with bricks, adding some landscaping elements.

Ed Hoffman, the architect hired by the city to design the $1 million project, is re-examining the plan. The city expects to hold another workshop within the next couple of months to try to move forward with some of the improvements.

But nothing that people overwhelmingly reject will go through, he promised.

"We either all fly together," he said, "or we sink together."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or

Community pushes back against too much 'Disney' on the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks 11/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 2:23pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. With successful jewelry line, Durant High alum Carley Ochs enjoys 'incredible ride'



    As a child Carley Ochs played dress up, draped in her grandmother's furs.

    Founder Carley Ochs poses for a portrait in her Ford Bronco at the Bourbon & Boweties warehouse in Brandon, Fla. on September 19, 2017. Ochs is a Durant High and Florida State University graduate.
  2. At Menorah Manor, planning paid off during Irma

    Nursing Homes

    ST. PETERSBURG — Doris Rosenblatt and her husband, Frank, have lived in Florida all of their lives, so they know about hurricanes.

    Raisa Collins, 9, far left, works on a craft project as Certified Nursing Assistant Shuntal Anthony holds Cassidy Merrill, 1, while pouring glue for Quanniyah Brownlee, 9, right, at Menorah Manor in St. Petersburg on Sept. 15. To help keep its patients safe during Hurricane Irma, Menorah Manor allowed employees to shelter their families and pets at the nursing home and also offered daycare through the week. The facility was able to accommodate and feed everyone who weathered the storm there. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  3. After Irma, nursing homes scramble to meet a hard deadline

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Florida's nursing homes and assisted-living facilities find themselves in an unfamiliar place this week — pushing back against Gov. Rick Scott's administration over new rules that require them to purchase generator capacity by Nov. 15 to keep their residents safe and comfortable in a power …

    In this Sept. 13 photo, a woman is transported from The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills as patients are evacuated after a loss of air conditioning due to Hurricane Irma in Hollywood. Nine have died and patients had to be moved out of the facility, many of them on stretchers or in wheelchairs. Authorities have launched a criminal investigation to figure out what went wrong and who, if anyone, was to blame. [Amy Beth Bennett | South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP]
  4. Trigaux: How Moffitt Cancer's M2Gen startup won $75 million from Hearst


    TAMPA — A Moffitt Cancer Center spin-off that's building a massive genetic data base of individual patient cancer information just caught the attention of a deep-pocketed health care investor.

    Richard P. Malloch is the president of Hearst Business Media, which is announcing a $75 million investment in M2Gen, the for-profit cancer informatics unit spun off by Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. Malloch's job is to find innovative investments for the Hearst family fortune. A substantial amount has been invested in health care, financial and the transportation and logistics industries.
  5. Three-hour police standoff ends, thanks to a cigarette


    TAMPA — A man threatening to harm himself was arrested by Tampa police on Tuesday after a three-hour standoff.