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Residents need to step up, save boat

Tarpon Springs officials say it could cost $150,000 to make its namesake sponge boat seaworthy and safe for passengers. A community fundraising drive may be the best solution.


Tarpon Springs officials say it could cost $150,000 to make its namesake sponge boat seaworthy and safe for passengers. A community fundraising drive may be the best solution.

It isn't enough just to save historic properties from destruction. Then someone has to take care of them — in perpetuity. And that is neither easy nor inexpensive.

That reality was learned well by those who campaigned to save the venerable Belleview Biltmore hotel from wrecking crews. The 1897 hotel, one of the biggest wooden structures still in use in the world, is well-loved by residents of Pinellas, many of whom were aghast that anyone would even think of tearing it down. Only later did it become clear the enormous costs involved in renovating the structure and the costs and dedication of keeping it maintained. How fortunate that a developer with experience and devotion to historic preservation was found and recruited for the job of giving the Belleview Biltmore a second life.

A similar situation, on a much smaller scale, has arisen in Tarpon Springs. The 43-foot-long, 22-ton Tarpon Springs, a historic example of the sponge boats that gave Tarpon Springs its livelihood and its ambience, lies permanently at anchor in the Anclote River. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but at age 73, it can no longer be used, and with every day that passes, it suffers more damage from exposure to the elements.

The city has owned the boat since the mid 1990s, when it used city funds and a state historic preservation grant to buy it. Officials then thought the boat could be used to give paying tourists a taste of sailing on a sponge boat, but it stays moored now, and does little except catch a flicker of interest from tourists visiting the shops and restaurants along the Sponge Docks.

The city has paid for the minimal maintenance necessary to keep the boat from rotting in the water, but a full refurbishment to make the boat seaworthy could cost as much as $150,000, according to a city official.

When city budgets are so tight and needed programs are being canceled, it is difficult for the city to consider spending so much to restore a boat, even one as historic as the Tarpon Springs. But if the money isn't spent, then the earlier investment to purchase and maintain the boat was wasted and eventually, the boat will fall apart.

With the economy showing no signs of picking up, the best solution may be the one proposed this week by resident Michael Koutouzis: The community should step up and donate the resources to take care of the boat.

Koutouzis, whose family has a business on the Sponge Docks, donated $2,000, which he hopes will be the seed money that encourages others to give. On Tuesday night, City Commissioner Chris Alahouzos displayed the check and asked the city staff to try to find additional funding sources for a project to restore the boat.

Tarpon Springs is filled with people who treasure the city's history in the sponging industry. The city also is home to several businesses that build or maintain boats and boating equipment. While times are as tough for the boating industry as they are for the city, perhaps those businesses could donate time and skill for a restoration project. Residents who care could contribute to a boat restoration fund.

A community fundraising effort would preserve city tax dollars for essential public services and projects, and also give Tarpon Springs residents a way to demonstrate their devotion to historic preservation.

Residents need to step up, save boat 07/17/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 19, 2008 10:19am]
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