Long before city planners built a seawall along the Anclote River in the 1920s, Greek sponge divers would steer their boats up to the sandy banks to unload their haul.
Over the years, the area at the Sponge Docks grew into a community gathering spot flanked by merchants selling everything from sponges to handmade soaps to traditional Greek cuisine.
This week, a new chapter in the city's waterfront history is about to begin.
City officials and Hoffman Architects, which has been hired to plan and design a $1 million Sponge Docks renovation project, will host a community workshop Friday to seek ideas from the public. A second workshop is scheduled for Monday.
Architect Ed Hoffman Jr. said he hopes the meetings will produce "brilliant ideas," as well as logistical concerns that can be addressed before construction begins.
"We want as many people to be happy with the project as possible," said architect Ed Hoffman Jr.
Improvements are planned along Dodecanese Boulevard from Pinellas Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard. Special attention will be paid to a city-owned parcel on the southern bank of the Anclote, where the iconic 6-foot-tall Greek sponge diver statue now sits. The area is used as a public gathering spot and has a working dock for commercial sponge boats.
The spot has been used recently for the popular Night in the Islands festivals, which feature Greek music, dancing and food.
The festival "brings a lot of people to town and having a beautiful dock area will just be much more conducive to having that event and others like it," said Susan Hutton, secretary of the Sponge Docks Merchant Association. "The aesthetics of the dock area will be so much more pleasing and it will actually look a lot more like it did historically."
Designs will be provided by Hoffman Architects, which was awarded a $114,696 contract for the first phase of the project in August. The city has budgeted $1 million for the entire project, including construction. The money is coming from Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue, said City Manager Mark LeCouris.
Construction bids will be sought once the planning and design stage is complete.
"We want to fast-track it, without rushing," LeCouris said. "If we can get a consensus … I think it's important to get the shovels into the ground as soon afterwards."
Hoffman Architects also recently designed new maritime-themed restrooms for the Hope Street right of way between Dodecanese and the Anclote. Construction on the facilities will begin soon, he said.
Some items under consideration for addition or improvement at the docks are sidewalks, landscaping, benches, trash cans, sign poles, lighting, banners and planters.
Hoffman plans on drawing inspiration from three of Tarpon Springs' Greek "Sister Cities" — Kalymnos, Halki and Symi — the origins of many of the city's first sponge divers.
One of the main goals of the design will be "a sense of authenticity" that reflects Tarpon's history and cultural background and helps promote economic growth, Hoffman said.
A second set of workshops will be held in the near future, probably in about a month, so Hoffman and his team can get additional input on preliminary designs.
A consultant has also created a website for Hoffman that will be used to give updates on progress, track ideas and log photos and design possibilities.
"I was very excited about that," said Hutton, co-owner of Sawgrass Tiki Bar on Athens Street. "It will not only keep people updated, but it creates excitement."
Rita Farlow can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.