TARPON SPRINGS — Despite urging from commissioners that Sponge Docks merchants work out their problems and approach the city with a unified voice, business owners continue to argue over how the city should restrict outdoor displays.
The result? Commissioners have decided to keep almost all of a contentious September ordinance that restricts the racks for dresses, sandals and hats that line the sidewalks at the Sponge Docks.
The commission voted on the matter Tuesday night. The issue is scheduled for further discussion when it goes before the commission for a second reading Dec. 3.
"We've got to clean it up, it's gotten out of hand," said former Mayor Anita Protos, holding up photos of outside merchandise she said doesn't reflect the Greek culture that brings people to the Sponge Docks.
The city's current ordinance bans displays taller than 36 inches or located more than 30 inches from a building. The ordinance also prohibits chimes and other items hanging from outdoor ceilings.
The restrictions prompted an outcry from some merchants who said they'd go out of business.
Commissioners indicated they might be open to easing the ordinance and sent proposed changes back to the Planning and Zoning Board, hoping that merchants could hash out their problems and come to an agreement.
But that didn't happen.
One by one, owners of Bill's Lighthouse, Gloria's Gifts, Tarpon Sponge Inc. and more made passionate testimonies Tuesday about how the rules impacted their businesses.
Among other complaints, resentment simmered over the fact that the ordinance doesn't apply to the businesses in the Sponge Exchange, an outdoor mini-mall of specialty stores.
Meanwhile, the storefronts that line Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street have to comply with the rules — whether their displays are on public or private property.
"They still are going to have to pay the rent, they have a contract," said attorney Mary Coburn, who said she represented several Tarpon Springs businesses. "But now they have half the retail space available to them."
Several commissioners commented on the beauty of the Sponge Docks buildings in the early mornings before merchants roll their display racks outside.
They voted 3-1 to ease height restrictions for display racks on private property, but otherwise offered only minor changes to clarify the existing ordinance. Commissioner Susan Slattery was absent.
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani several times reminded merchants that displaying merchandise on public property is a privilege, not a right, and that the Sponge Docks are the only area of the city where merchants can set up outside.
Led by George Billiris, owner of St. Nicholas Boat Line, the debate evolved to encompass the general struggles of businesses in Tarpon Springs, once a tourist haven that bustled year-round.
Although the state doesn't keep official numbers, the Greek restaurants and working waterfront (where there are only a few sponge boats left) have fewer visitors than in decades past.
Billiris, in the tone of a disappointed grandfather, took to the lectern to recount the oft-repeated history of the Tarpon Springs sponge business.
He told merchants to stop the "stabbing each other in the back" and "tearing each other down" so they can focus on reviving the waterfront and attracting visitors.
Otherwise, he said, businesses need to dig into their pockets for more advertising dollars.
"All of this is because people aren't doing enough business," he said, adding the Greek phrase, poverty breeds friction. "If you were doing good business, you wouldn't care what people were putting up outside the door."
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.