A project to enhance the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks has been halted following a sudden flood of criticism, unproven allegations and misinformation, and a city employee has been forced out in its wake. Now the only sure outcomes are that a project that could have brought more visitors to the docks won't happen and the community has failed to work together.
Four years ago, Sponge Docks merchants asked the city for a project to enhance the docks area. The city hired local architect Ed Hoffman to develop a plan and educate the community about it. The plan added new features to the docks area, including a river walk along the Anclote River, shaded seat risers to create a small performance area, an entrance feature, some transient boat docks and brick streets.
Over three years — no one can claim the city rushed — the project and costs were discussed in meetings with the City Commission, the public and stakeholders. The plan was modified as concerns were raised, but there was no outpouring of opposition.
URS, a respected national engineering firm, was hired to work up the engineering plans and seek permits from regulators. A project cost of $1.3 million was determined, and as of last month, more than $300,000 had been expended on plans.
Yet in April, a drumbeat of opposition began. It picked up after Costa Vatikiotis, former city manager and a retired engineer, wrote a letter claiming the transient docks and river walk wouldn't get approved by regulators because, among other things, they would interfere with the Anclote boat channel.
There was a furious public backlash, fueled by unfounded rumors that the city had created the plan to get rid of the sponge and fishing boats. Some said the city should have known from the beginning that the Army Corps of Engineers would not permit the project. Some claimed officials had tried to sneak the project past the public.
Three years of public discussion is hardly sneaking. Those who claim the city "should have known" regulators wouldn't give permits don't know themselves because the project was halted before an official decision.
Nor is there any evidence of a lack of city commitment to support sponge diving and Greek culture. The city pays to advertise the Sponge Docks, approves cultural events there, supports the Jolley Trolley route — and wanted to spend $1.3 million to enhance the docks.
The city employee who lost his job during the brouhaha was Joseph DiPasqua, the city's development review services director who ran the city when City Manager Mark LeCouris was away. No one is talking about why DiPasqua was forced to resign. Curiously, at a recent City Commission meeting, Commissioner Townsend Tarapani thanked the city manager for "listening to the commission" and getting rid of DiPasqua. Yet the commission had not discussed DiPasqua or any personnel change. If a commissioner or commissioners required LeCouris to kick out DiPasqua, they crossed a line. They don't have that right under Tarpon's charter.
Now, the problem that began the whole affair — the aging of the Sponge Docks area and the potential for an eventual loss of tourist traffic there — will go unaddressed. And after so much discord, there is probably no city official now or in the immediate future who will have an appetite for trying to develop alternatives.