TARPON SPRINGS — With three of five City Commission seats up for grabs on March 9, Tarpon Springs' election could mark a different direction for a city that has relied on its historic charm to drive its identity.
After two terms, Mayor Beverley Billiris and Commissioner Peter Dalacos must vacate their offices due to term limits.
Commissioner Chris Alahouzos faces a challenge from political newcomer Beverly Kurpinski.
For mayor, former commissioner and political veteran David Archie faces city Board of Adjustment member Matt King.
For the seat being vacated by Dalacos, the city's Planning and Zoning Board chairman Jeff Larsen is battling local real estate agent Joe Muzio.
During the campaign, the candidates have shared their views on three issues that have been on the minds of Tarpon Springs residents:
• Should Walmart be allowed to build along the Anclote River?
• Should the city build a cut-through parking lot off Tarpon Avenue on a piece a property the commission agreed to purchase?
• How can the city improve its economic viability?
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Archie, 56, was on the commission in 2005 and voted to allow Walmart to build.
"Walmart met all the standards and I'll do the same thing as I did last time," Archie said. "It's a viable industry in the U.S. I treated Walmart as I would any other entity."
In 2008, King was a member of the city's Board of Adjustment and voted against Walmart's attempt to make changes to its site plan without having to go through a more extensive review.
King, 34, doesn't think "Walmart is the type of business we want to see in our city." He said he wants the city to attract higher-paying jobs, and ones that are in the "green" industry.
As for the parking connector at 143 Tarpon Ave., Archie said he is not convinced it's needed.
"I don't think that's the best use for the money," Archie said.
King doesn't object to a Tarpon Avenue connector to the Orange Street parking lot. But he, too, is concerned about its potential cost.
When it comes to economic growth, King said "tax abatements" should be offered to prospective businesses, but he cautioned that the city needs the right kind of business.
"That doesn't mean that every business that comes along should be welcomed and have the red carpet laid out for them," King said.
Archie said because of the tough economic climate, sound decisions need to be made for all residents.
"We can't have people who have special-interest groups in mind," Archie said. "I only have one special-interest group and that's the citizens of Tarpon."
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The current chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board, Larsen said he voted against Walmart for legal reasons when the issue came before the board. Larsen, 32, said Walmart did not have a valid concurrency certificate.
Larsen's name ended up on a lawsuit that was filed against the city over the Walmart matter. He said his name was added without his permission and was later removed. Walmart pushed to have Larsen recuse himself from the Planning and Zoning Board's vote. He refused.
When asked about Walmart at a recent candidate forum, Larsen said his vote indicated he was "not afraid to stand up for the rights of the citizens if an applicant does not have an application that meets the criteria that's already set forth by our codes and ordinances."
But Muzio, 58, said it's simply about a property owner's rights. He said that Walmart's plan did not encroach on the city's wetlands, unlike a proposed Lowe's or a Sweetbay shopping center that recently opened in the city. Muzio said there was no opposition to the other stores.
"We are talking about the rights of property owners," Muzio said. "We have to protect their rights just like you would want me to protect your property rights."
Larsen said he wasn't prepared to state a position about the Tarpon Avenue cut-through issue. Muzio said he wants to see a building on the lot instead.
"I don't believe making that a parking lot is the best use of that property," Muzio said. "As a Realtor, the best use for a property is its prior usage, and that was a building."
In terms of economic development, Muzio said the city needs to offer incentives to bring in businesses, noting the number of empty storefronts in downtown and the recent loss of Kmart.
"If the store is empty, we (the city) receive nothing." Muzio said.
Larsen said he will have his eye on the long-term future and health of the city.
"One thing that needs to happen is to improve the look of the downtown area," Larsen said. "Facade grants are a way property owners can get involved with the look of their properties."
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Alahouzos was careful about answering Walmart questions because he said the matter still could come back before the board. But he pointed to a recently passed ordinance that limits where big-box stores can be located in Tarpon Springs.
"The environment is very important to us," Alahouzos, 59, said. "But we still have to ask, 'How do we attract businesses to Tarpon Springs?' "
Kurpinski, 63, said that everywhere she goes, she gets a different response from residents about Walmart. But she said the issue is on their minds.
"Do I want to protect the environment? I certainly do," Kurpinski said. "But I don't want to take away property rights, either."
As for the parking connector off Tarpon Avenue, Alahouzos said the land should become a combination of parking, a park and public restrooms.
"I don't think using that piece of ground for a cut-through parking lot is best right now," she said.
On the economic front, Alahouzos said he wanted the city to be sensible.
"We need to control our spending and make sound decisions and to do more with less," said Alahouzos, who also favors giving incentives to attract businesses to the area.
Kurpinski said the most important thing is to maintain a balanced budget.
"If anybody knows how to do math … all we need and we desire will not come to fruition," she said of a balanced budget. "That's one of the hardest things — keeping the city in balance."
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Tarpon voters will also vote on nine city charter questions that range from required approval from residents before the city can dismantle its fire department to requiring the assistant city manager and the development services director to reside within the city within one year of being hired.