TARPON SPRINGS — To Michael Koutouzis, the city's sponge-diving boat is a symbol of the heart and soul of the community.
The 43-foot-long, 22-ton vessel — aptly named the Tarpon Springs — is virtually identical to the sponge boats that crisscrossed the waters near his homeland of Kalymnos, Greece, the ancestral home of many Tarpon Springs residents.
But it's not exactly a sight for sore eyes, said Koutouzis, 67, whose family business, Lori's Soap and Sponge Market on Dodecanese Boulevard, is within plain view of the Tarpon Springs.
"If we don't do something, it's going to be gone," he said. "I felt that as a resident and being in the sponge business, it is my duty to do something."
So on Tuesday, Koutouzis donated $2,000 toward the 73-year-old boat's restoration. City Commissioner Chris Alahouzos presented the check to the commission and asked city staff to look for more funding to restore the vessel.
The city bought the sponge diving boat in 1994 for $40,000, with $20,000 coming from a state of Florida Historic Preservation matching-funds grant.
Originally dubbed the Eleni, and later known as the Louis Pappas and the N.K. Symi, the boat was built by the Tarpon Springs-based Samarkos Brothers Sponge Co. in the mid 1930s and was a working sponge boat through the early 1990s.
The ancient Phoenician design, which dates back 2,500 years, "has changed little over the centuries and was adapted to the environment of Florida and the propulsion technology of the 1920s," according to an e-mail from city spokeswoman Judy Staley.
Permanently moored at the Sponge Docks, the Tarpon Springs is one of five sponge boats in Tarpon Springs listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Staley said.
The boat was used in the 1953 movie Beneath the Twelve-Mile Reef. In World War II, it was used to salvage airplanes from the Gulf of Mexico.
Intended to be used as a "living museum," the boat has languished for years at its permanent mooring spot near the city's Sponge Docks.
The city recently contracted with Anclote Marine Ways to do maintenance on the boat below the water line. The bottom was scraped, repainted and sealed, fiberglass was refinished and the boat's rudder was cleaned.
But much work would still have to be done before passengers could board it, said city Public Services Director Juan Cruz.
Deckside and storage components would need to be replaced or repaired, and the boat needs a new electrical system, Cruz said.
To make it seaworthy, the boat would need a new engine and transmission, estimated to cost about $60,000. In total, renovations could reach $150,000, Cruz said.
Mayor Beverley Billiris, whose family owns sponge boats, said she believed the estimates were high.
"I know we can probably do it for less than that," she said.
Billiris suggested the city lease out the boat, once it's repaired, to spongers during the off-season summer months when fewer tourists visit the area. The venture could generate revenue to pay for future maintenance, she said.
"It adds life to a boat if you take it out to sea," she said Wednesday.
But City Commissioner Peter Dalacos said during Tuesday night's commission meeting that he was concerned about the long-term health of the vessel and possible liability issues.
"Do we want to be leasing out our historic relics?" he asked.
Commissioners didn't allocate any money for the project, but asked staff to report back to them about the possibility of grant funding.
Engine repairs, they agreed, would have to wait.
Interim City Manager Mark LeCouris said he was already talking to other Sponge Dock merchants and local residents who have expressed an interest in donating money toward repairs.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.