TARPON SPRINGS — On what is now a bare asphalt parking lot at the Sponge Docks, George Billiris envisions this: a Mediterranean village of kiosks that would hawk international coffee, designer jewelry and handcrafted goods.
But not everyone shares the same imagination, so some people hearing about Billiris' new business proposal have envisioned a shoddy flea market instead.
That was a tough image for Billiris, a longtime Sponge Docks businessman, to combat recently in front of accusatory retailers at a disorganized meeting of the city Planning and Zoning Board.
Billiris and his wife, Beverley, a former Tarpon Springs mayor, have proposed a seven-year project to place 21 merchandise kiosks on a parking lot George Billiris owns at 590 Dodecanese Blvd. overlooking the Anclote River. Conditional use approval from the city would be required for the kiosk project to be built in the Sponge Docks area, which is occupied by mostly site-built shops and restaurants that rely heavily on the tourist trade.
"We need to bring some diversity to the Sponge Docks, basically clean up our act," Beverley Billiris said.
The Billirises' proposal comes at a time when the city and retailers are envisioning an improved Sponge Docks, with $1 million pledged for aesthetic touches and new features to entice tourists.
An emphatic promoter of the sponge industry, George Billiris says his kiosk plan is designed to attract locals rather than rely on tourists.
"I have no faith in tourism anymore," he told the Planning and Zoning Board. "The bottom line is, this would be an attraction that would complement Tarpon Springs, stay in line with what we're known for and what we've been known for, and that's my goal."
At the Dec. 17 board meeting, the Billiris proposal spawned a confusing hours-long debate that often veered into blunt interrogations of the city planner, Rodney Chatman, over elements that he doesn't handle and aren't even legal to consider in conditional use applications.
The board stumbled through procedures to allow opponents of the plan to question the Billirises over the building code, insurance and taxes through emotional testimony and without presenting substantial evidence.
"What is the enforcement of the city to maintain the integrity and the beautification of this property?" asked Mary Klimis Coburn, an attorney representing several Sponge Docks merchants. "Right now what I see is a getting around building codes that everyone else has to conform to."
She bristled over the proposal for kiosks instead of a brick-and-mortar shopping mall, claiming unfair competition with other merchants who have higher expenses and taxes for their site-built businesses.
"You're not adding something — you're undercutting the people that exist there," Coburn said. "This isn't consistent with what we're trying to do down there."
Beverley Billiris countered: "I've heard one storekeeper after another argue back and forth because they didn't want somebody to have something they didn't have. The Sponge Docks is known (for) never agreeing with their neighbor."
The zoning board voted 4-1 against the kiosk plan. Responding to the backlash against change at the Sponge Docks, the Billirises said they now will seek city approval for an initial six kiosks.
"It's a smaller picture," Beverley Billiris said Friday, "and hopefully from that they'll grasp the bigger picture."
But that means the couple will have to return to the Planning and Zoning Board for approval of each separate phase.
The City Commission will take up the couple's amended application Tuesday. At that meeting, they'll also appoint a replacement for a resigning Planning and Zoning Board member, Carl Wagenfohr, and consider the expiring term of John Gialousis.
Commissioner Susan Slattery asked for a discussion of the Planning and Zoning Board at the Jan. 22 commission meeting.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.