Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks merchants feud over outdoor displays

Racks of sandals and hats attract shoppers outside the Seaside Paradise Gift Shop on Wednesday at the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs, where merchants are again facing off over whether the city is too lenient in its rules about displaying goods outside.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Racks of sandals and hats attract shoppers outside the Seaside Paradise Gift Shop on Wednesday at the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs, where merchants are again facing off over whether the city is too lenient in its rules about displaying goods outside.

TARPON SPRINGS — Among the merchants at the Sponge Docks, there are opposing philosophies about the dresses, sandals, hats and other merchandise that crowds the narrow sidewalks.

For some, the outdoor displays are reminiscent of Greece, attracting customers into stores and enabling businesses to survive. For others, the racks of goods make the area feel like a flea market and discourage repeat visitors.

Both groups are preparing for a new battle over whether the city should amend a month-old ordinance that restricts the height of outdoor racks and bans store owners from hanging chimes and other merchandise from outdoor ceilings.

Merchants made often-emotional appeals Tuesday to the City Commission, pleading with officials either to change the ordinance or leave it as is.

Commissioners urged the merchants to strike a compromise and come to the city with a unified front.

"It's a give and take world," said Mayor David Archie, asking business owners to join the Tarpon Springs Merchant Association so they can work with their peers to find common ground. "Everybody up here wants all of the businesses to be successful."

The issue is expected to go before the city's Planning and Zoning Board Nov. 18 and the commission Nov. 19.

Rea Sieber, who owns two Sponge Docks businesses and is president of the merchant association, said the current rules are supposed to be a compromise.

The ordinance says that outside displays can protrude no more than 30 inches from the building and be no higher than 36 inches — still large enough for the sponge displays that promote the city's sponge-diving heritage.

On Tuesday, some people proposed changing the height restriction to 72 inches, which would enable them to use what they already have.

In response, Sieber read several negative reviews from Trip Advisor, a travel website where people described the Sponge Docks with words like "grimy," "tacky" and "tourist trap."

What is the point, she asked, of the city investing more than a million dollars to spruce up the Sponge Docks if the merchants won't do their part to clean it up?

The city is poised to spend $1.3 million on a Sponge Docks improvement project that could include an amphitheater and observation tower.

Sieber's testimony set off sharp replies from merchants who said they never have heard a complaint, including Debbie Thompson, manager of Gloria's Gifts.

"I have not had a negative review in four years," she said.

Rio Deleportes, owner of Tarpon Shell Shack and Tropical Breeze Boutique, said he hasn't complied with the current ordinance because he can't fit his four racks into his stores.

Rent at the Sponge Docks can range from $4,000 to $7,000 per month, he said, and some businesses may not survive if they can't put things outside.

"We don't make a lot of money here, we struggle," he said.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks merchants feud over outdoor displays 11/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 8, 2013 6:05pm]

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