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Tarpon commissioners refuse Billiris kiosks, but approve sweepstakes cafe

TARPON SPRINGS — Tarpon Springs can have an Internet sweepstakes cafe, but not six open-air retail kiosks at the Sponge Docks, city commissioners decided Tuesday.

Commissioners have concerns about the proposed sweepstakes cafe at 39028 U.S. 19, but they said the proposal falls within state law. The cafe is one of dozens that have cropped up in the Tampa Bay area in recent years. It is the only such facility in Tarpon.

"These people claim, and the people who represent them claim, they are going to operate within the law," said Mark LeCouris, Tarpon Springs city manager. "So far, the group has done things right."

Local governments have grappled to interpret the antiquated "sweepstakes" law that governs Internet cafes, and some have taken a harder line than others. In Tarpon, as in Clearwater, officials suggested that blocking the cafes would put the city on shaky legal ground.

"It's not your responsibility to make the law, but to apply it," City Attorney Jim Yacavone repeatedly warned commissioners.

The cafes circumvent the state gambling ban by using sweepstakes to attract customers who pay for Internet time. In other words, attorneys argued, the business model is similar to scratch-off sweepstakes with an order at McDonald's.

The cafes are controversial, but the Tarpon proposal garnered little community input during Tuesday's meeting. In contrast, the crowd grew rowdy when the commission took up — and rejected 4-3 — the proposal by Beverley and George Billiris to build an open-air market on the Sponge Docks.

Their plan was to transform their asphalt parking lot into a village of six kiosks, similar to those in Greece. Vendors could hawk goods from coffee to art at a scenic pedestrian area overlooking the Anclote River.

The intention was to beautify the area and drive foot traffic, George Billiris said, following a passionate speech about the future of the Sponge Docks. He also accused other business owners of sitting back and watching as the area's tourism declines.

"Maybe the kiosks aren't the answer. But I do know the answer is not negativity and let's not do anything," he said, lightly pounding the podium. "If you don't do something down there and think in a positive way, this isn't going to get any better. Period."

The Billiris proposal met opposition at every turn, driven by a small group of Sponge Docks business owners who said the change would give the area the feel of a flea market. Several also warned the proposal could endanger their brick and mortar businesses, which have higher overhead and might have to lower prices to compete.

The city's Planning and Zoning Board shot down the first proposal, for 21 kiosks, after a three-hour debate that occasionally sank to personal insults. The board eventually approved a plan for six kiosks and recommended the project to the commission.

After the commission's decision Tuesday, George Billiris said he would build a flea market. Zoning laws wouldn't require him to jump through the same hoops, he added.

Other business owners made it clear they oppose a flea market.

"This is about keeping our eye on the vision of what we see for the Sponge Docks," said Rosanne Pappas, a co-owner at The Sponge Exchange and opponent of the Billiris proposal. "It is a national treasure, and we should elevate what is already there."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at (850) 323-0353 or bdavis@tampabay.com.

Tarpon commissioners refuse Billiris kiosks, but approve sweepstakes cafe 02/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 6:46pm]
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