TARPON SPRINGS — Movies have been made about the historic and quaint Greek culture that pervades Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks.
The smell of recently cultivated and drying sponges draws curious tourists. The small shops that sell knickknacks, handmade soaps full of olive oil and natural sponges have pulled in plenty of dollars over the decades.
But in recent years, tourism has waned.
Now Tarpon's merchants, property owners and city officials are trying to figure out how to rejuvenate the Sponge Docks without infringing on that old-time Greek heritage.
Renea Vincent, Tarpon's director of planning and zoning, presented a $1.7 million conceptual plan to city commissioners Tuesday night that could bring some newness to the area. The Sponge Docks Riverwalk Project calls for pavers, piers that jut into the Anclote River and a children's interactive play fountain.
While some welcome a little modernization, others worry about overdoing it.
"The thing we must do is retain what we are," said George Billiris, a longtime Sponge Docks property and business owner. "What we are known for and what we have the privilege of, is media, which gives you worldwide (exposure).
"Your Mickey Mouse is the Greek and the sponge. That's what you are reselling. We get worldwide (exposure) because the media is in love with our story. Let's give them reality instead of Mickey Mouse. We are not a park down here, we are a working port."
Rosanne Pappas, owner of the Sponge Exchange, agreed that the Greek heritage must be preserved, but she also told commissioners that something must be done to enhance the area.
"We will slowly die," Pappas said. "We can argue about how it's designed later on. Listening to our merchants, they are dying on the vine. If we don't make it (the Sponge Docks) updated and nice, we will die down there."
The City Commission voted unanimously to pursue a transportation enhancement grant from the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. If received, the city would get about $700,000 toward the $1.7 million project. The grant's submittal deadline is June 30.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization will review applications and compile a priority list at its Sept. 8 meeting.
"The Sponge Docks is the major attractor," Mayor David Archie said. "Are there other fabulous features to Tarpon? Yes. Tarpon has been able to maintain that charm. We can decide to move ahead with this grant but look at monies from other places."
The commission assured the Sponge Docks merchants and property owners that the submitted plan was just a concept. Those who make a living at the docks will have a major voice in deciding what the final remake of the area will look like, commissioners said.
Steve Lindhorst, owner of Beachworks Clothing & Gear at the Sponge Docks, encouraged the commission to push for the grant.
"I can't put into words the urgency to get this board to okay the application for this," Lindhorst said. "We need a shot in the arm down there. No one is trying to turn this around and into a South Beach or a marina operation. We just want to maintain and beautify it. No one is trying to take away any of the character."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.