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Parking needs put casino boat on hold

(ran PC edition)

A proposed casino cruise to nowhere won't go anywhere until the gambling boat's owner finds somewhere to park his customers, city officials say.

Pensacola lawyer Charles Liberis' plan to launch a casino boat business in the city temporarily ran aground this week after city officials questioned how the business would operate.

Four months after Liberis asked the city for permission to operate an offshore gambling boat from the Sponge Docks, city officials said they need more time to consider his proposal.

Concerned that Liberis' plan to provide 100 parking spaces for casino customers may conflict with current city codes, the City Commission on Tuesday evening postponed a vote until next week.

"We need to do an inventory of what's there and what's needed," City Attorney John Hubbard said.

A 202-foot vessel owned by Liberis' sureBet Casinos of Florida would be anchored in international waters several miles from a dock the company is leasing from Louis Pappas' Riverside Restaurant on Dodecanese Boulevard.

Under the terms of sureBet's one-year lease with the restaurant, Pappas will reserve 100 parking spaces in its parking lot for casino boat customers. But city officials said Tuesday that they're concerned there's not enough room for the 400 to 500 gambling enthusiasts expected to flock to the Sponge Docks each day.

City zoning rules require Pappas to provide 222 parking spaces for its 950-seat restaurant. Pappas currently has 205 spaces. Pappas is allowed to operate with just 205 parking spaces because of several factors, including the grandfathering of the longtime operation and city parking credits, said city planning and zoning director Renea Vincent.

But if 100 spaces are exclusively reserved for casino customers, that leaves just 105 spaces for Pappas' customers.

And that's what worries some city commissioners.

"We have certain standards that we need to follow," city Commissioner David Archie said. "It seems like (the restaurant owners) were meeting the requirements and now they're not meeting requirements."

Pappas' co-owner Maria Kastrenakes said she believes the restaurant will have plenty of parking to accommodate both its own and casino boat customers. She said Pappas cleared up questions about parking in recent talks with the city.

"We do have an employee parking lot across the way," Kastrenakes said. "The way we've worked it, actually it should be fine."

Liberis, 61, was visibly upset by the City Commission's decision to delay its decision on the casino boat until next week. His company applied for an occupational license in October to run an offshore tour boat from the Sponge Docks in the hopes of launching operations early this year.

Frustrated, Liberis said Tuesday that he'd done everything he could to make sure sureBet complied with city codes and that he is "desperate" to start operating.

"I'm trying to hire 200 people and I can't give them the go-ahead to hire them because I can't get a permit," Liberis told Tarpon Springs commissioners. "If this drags on anymore, I might not be able to get staffed up."

Liberis believes his gambling boat will be a boon for Tarpon Springs' tourism industry. Gambling boat passengers will pay an as-yet-to-be-determined fee to gain access to roughly 300 slot machines. The nearly 40-year-old vessel can accommodate up to 600 passengers, but is only certified to carry 350 passengers and 50 crew members, Liberis said. The boat also has a restaurant that will serve light fare and 20 gaming tables.

"You would think they (city officials) would be falling all over themselves to try to encourage this because most of the people will be hired locally," Liberis said.

Tuesday was not the first time one of Liberis' casino boat ventures has hit rough waters. He was formerly president of American Casino Cruises and helped found Europa Cruises Corp., once one of Florida's top casino cruise lines.

In 1992 he resigned as president and chief executive officer, but sued to regain his position. The ensuing legal battle included allegations of misconduct by both sides. Liberis' bid to regain his position at Europa failed after he lost a lawsuit in 1996.

_ Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 445-4181 or rondeauxsptimes.com.

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