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Possible casino boat muddies hotel deal

When asked to allow casino boats at the Sponge Docks in the past, Tarpon Springs city commissioners' reactions have ranged from reluctance to outright indignation.

They may soon have to make a decision about another boat, this one tied to a popular plan that would bring a hotel to the docks.

Along with a proposal to build a $50-million hotel and conference/convention center next to Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant, which Tony Markopoulos is in the process of buying, a real estate agent working on the deal has submitted a request to put an offshore tour vessel behind the restaurant.

Does that mean Markopoulos would bring in a casino boat? He won't say.

"It's very premature right now," said Markopoulos, a Clearwater Beach hotelier.

He said the boat could be a dinner boat, and city officials said they know little about what kind of boat he has in mind. But in the past few years, Markopoulos has proposed bringing a casino boat to Clearwater and Dunedin, and some Tarpon Springs officials said a casino boat is a possibility here.

City Attorney John Hubbard said he doesn't know if the offshore tour vessel is a deal breaker for Markopoulos, but Hubbard's understanding is that it is a key aspect of Markopoulos' overall plan.

"Very clearly, this is an important element of their development proposal," Hubbard said.

"It might have an effect'

If a casino boat is proposed, several commissioners said they would have a difficult time deciding what to do about it. Some said the proposal would receive no special consideration, but one commissioner said she might be more inclined to support it, partly because of the hotel deal.

Commissioner Karen Brayboy noted that she has been against other casino boat proposals in the past, but this one may be different. In the past, she said, she has not supported casino boats because she thought they would not help other area businesses, block the view at the Sponge Docks and were "quite hideous-looking."

Markopoulos' plans show that a boat would go on the northwest side of the restaurant, which Brayboy thinks would not block the view as much as boats in other locations. She also pointed out that, unlike with other proposals, the overall deal would bring business to the docks because of the hotel's draw.

She said she doesn't know if Markopoulos would do away with the other aspects of his plan if he doesn't receive approval for a boat.

"If he says he's got to have the boat or no deal, it would be pretty shortsighted of me" to vote against it, she said. "In this case, I'm not going to cut off my nose to spite my face."

Mayor Frank DiDonato said if the proposal is for a casino boat, he would examine it just as he would any other such proposal and would not favor it just because of the other aspects of Markopoulos' plan.

"The hotel is desirable, but I don't think anyone gets any special consideration," he said.

Commissioners will be asked separately for their approval of hotel plans and the boat. Meetings dealing with the height of the hotel, which is taller than the city currently allows at the waterfront, are set for 7 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Planning and Zoning Board meeting, and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 20 and Dec. 4 at City Commission meetings.

Two separate conditional use requests _ one for the hotel and one for the offshore tour vessel _ are tentatively scheduled for the Dec. 17 Planning and Zoning meeting and the Dec. 18 City Commission meeting, said Michael Crawford, a principal planner with the Pinellas Planning Council who is the city's point man for this project. He said the city will want details about capacity, boat size and what type of vessel it will be before those meetings are held.

Commissioner Jim Archer said he needs more information about whether the offshore tour vessel would be a gambling boat before making a decision. He said it may be possible that a casino boat would fit in with the atmosphere at the docks.

"I think there could be a place for it," he said. "I have mixed feelings about it.

"I certainly think we need a hotel in this part of the city," he said, but he also said he didn't know if the hotel would hinge on the developer receiving approval for a boat.

Commissioner Cindy Sanner said she won't know what she thinks about a possible casino boat until she sees whether that's really what Markopoulos wants. If he proposes a casino boat, she said, she will examine the proposal to see how the boat would affect the Sponge Docks.

Commissioner Beverley Billiris would not comment on the possibility of a casino boat because of a conflict of interest, which will prevent her from voting on any proposals on offshore tour vessels. She owns a gift shop at the Sponge Docks, and a casino boat operated earlier this year from a dock owned by her husband, businessman George Billiris.

That boat is gone, as is a casino boat that Paradise of Port Richey operated out of Tarpon Springs until it ran into trouble with the city in 1999. Larry Crow, an attorney whose clients include Paradise of Port Richey, said the city was not receptive to Paradise when it last had a boat in Tarpon Springs and when the company made later attempts to bring a boat back to the city.

Crow, also a state representative from Palm Harbor, wondered if the city might be affected by the possibility of losing out on the hotel deal.

"When you're dangling a $50-million convention hotel in front of their eyes . . . it might have an effect," he said. "I hope that doesn't cloud their vision."

The city has an ordinance that prohibits offshore tour vessels from docking within 1,500 feet of each other, a policy that Crow has protested through the years. He said it was a way for the city to keep his clients out of the city.

City officials have said the rule is a way to keep the docks from becoming cluttered with gambling boats and other large vessels, and they threatened to cite the company that used George Billiris' dock earlier this year for a possible violation of the ordinance.

Hubbard said it appears that a boat on the Pappas property would be more than 1,500 feet from other offshore tour boats, so it wouldn't be subject to that rule. He also said the city has been told that the boat would be docked on property Markopoulos plans to buy, so they would not need to get a submerged land lease from the state.

Crawford, the planner reviewing the proposal, said he still is checking on both issues.

"Really, I don't remember'

If Markopoulos proposes a casino boat, it would be at least the third time in the past few years that he has tried to get permission to bring one to this area. Even so, he said he has no recollection of whether he has proposed casino boats in two other cities.

"Really I don't remember if I've done something in the past," he said.

Others, however, do.

Bill Morris, the harbor master in Clearwater, said Markopoulos considered bringing a casino boat to the city a couple of years ago. He said the request never went anywhere because the city determined Markopoulos didn't have enough space for a boat behind his Port Vue Motel on Clearwater Beach.

In Dunedin, Markopoulos talked to the city about bringing a casino boat to the Pirate's Cove Marina at the mouth of the Curlew River within the past year and a half, said Kevin Campbell, director of community services. He said the site didn't meet the minimum standards for parking and that the space for the boat would have been too tight, so Markopoulos dropped his plans.

If Markopoulos tries bringing a casino boat to Tarpon Springs, Crow said his clients won't be far behind. Crow withdrew a proposal from Paradise earlier this year. But if a boat is allowed behind Louis Pappas, he said, he would resubmit it.

"If they're going to allow them at Pappas', they're going to have to allow them all up and down the docks," he said.

_ Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazellasptimes.com.

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