TARPON SPRINGS — Despite some passionate opposition to the plan, Tarpon Springs leaders are moving forward with a $1.3 million project to beautify and enhance the Sponge Docks tourist district.
City commissioners haven't yet voted to actually go through with the project. That will likely happen in the spring, after construction bids for the work have come in.
But at a commission meeting last week, Tarpon's elected officials expressed strong support for the project, even as members of their audience verbally trashed it.
Commissioners told the architect who designed the project to put the work out for bid. Once the bids come back, they'll decide how much of the work they want done. Construction could begin as soon as next summer.
"I can't wait to see the finished product. It's fabulous," said Vice Mayor Susan Slattery.
The concept has been in the works for two years. It has at times been a tense battle to preserve the Sponge Docks' heritage while giving the district a much-needed sprucing up.
Improvements are planned for public property along Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street. The money will come from Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue.
One of the most significant parts of the plan is an oval-shaped amphitheater with benches and shade structures. It would serve as a public gathering spot along the southern bank of the Anclote River, where an 8-foot-wide wooden riverwalk would be added. Commercial sponge boats that currently dock at a concrete wharf there will still be able to dock.
"We're putting the docks back in the Sponge Docks because right now it's just a concrete wharf," said Tarpon Springs architect Ed Hoffman, who's designing the plan. "We're not closing the road (as called for in a previous plan), but it's still more pedestrian-friendly so people will want to hang out there."
Other elements of the plan:
• A sail-shaped gateway for the district's main entrance.
• Red brick streets to distinguish the district from its surroundings.
• Nautically themed wayfinding signs to help visitors get around.
• Transient boat docks for visiting boaters.
Some elements of the plan have been dropped, such as a three-level observation tower and a floating dock that would have jutted out into the river. Dodecanese Boulevard will not be closed.
Some Tarpon residents criticize the proposed changes as too modern. One of the most fervent critics is former Mayor Anita Protos.
"Tonight is the death of our Sponge Docks," Protos told commissioners. She fears the docks will lose their authenticity.
"Once it's gone with this, you'll never get it back again. You go to St. Augustine, you don't see all this stuff. They keep the historic value."
Athena Klimis-Tsardoulias, owner of Tarpon Sponge Inc., a business on the Sponge Docks, believes the look of the project isn't appropriate for the historic district. Brandishing a copy of Southern Living magazine that mentions Tarpon Springs, she said, "People are coming here to see the old, to see a commercial working dock."
Hoffman, the architect, defended his work, arguing that wooden docks and brick streets would be more historically appropriate at the Sponge Docks than the concrete wharf and asphalt streets that exist there now.
"The original character (of the docks) was all wood. The entire thing was wood. There wasn't any concrete out there," Hoffman said, adding, "I tend to think that the original brick streets is the way to go."
The plans were developed after several public workshops over two years in which residents, boaters and business owners said they wanted to maintain the Greek village atmosphere and working waterfront. They also wanted trees for shade, better lighting and way-finding signs for visitors.
Despite doing all that public outreach, city leaders are now contending with a last-minute flurry of misinformation about the project. Mayor David Archie and City Manager Mark LeCouris spent some time at Tuesday's public meeting correcting misconceptions they had heard in recent days.
No, they said, the city isn't going to condemn anyone's private property. The city won't take anyone's land. It won't go after anyone's submerged land lease. Sponge boats won't be banned from the docks.
"This thing has been vetted I don't know how many times. We've had public hearings. Lots of people have been involved," Archie said. "The city is not trying to do anything underhanded to anybody. Everything has been out in the open."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.