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Vote lets casino boat launch in Tarpon

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

It's been more than a year since the last gambling cruise sailed out of Tarpon Springs, but this week city officials cleared the way for a new casino boat to cast off at the Sponge Docks.

That's expected to happen in March. If all goes as planned, the new boat will return offshore gambling to North Pinellas.

The City Commission voted 3-1 Tuesday evening in favor of Pensacola lawyer Charles Liberis' plan to launch a gambling boat business in Tarpon Springs.

Liberis asked the city for permission to operate the offshore gambling boat four months ago. He plans to anchor a 202-foot vessel in international waters several miles away from a dock that his company, sureBet Casinos of Florida, is leasing from Louis Pappas' Riverside Restaurant on Dodecanese Boulevard.

With his plan, Liberis intends to venture into waters where others have foundered.

One gambling business in the area tanked when a Stardancer Casino Cruise ship was repossessed, disappearing from its Sponge Docks berth after the ship's owners ran into financial trouble. Months later, FBI agents raided several Stardancer Casino boats, including one in Tarpon Springs, seizing evidence in an embezzlement investigation.

But Liberis, who has long had ties to the state's gambling industry, insists that things will go differently this time around. For starters, the former president of American Casino Cruises has decided to rename sureBet so the company name better reflects the character of neighboring Sponge Docks businesses.

Liberis said the 350-passenger boat will now sail under a new company name: Casino Odyssey at Louis Pappas' Docks. The vessel will also be painted Grecian blue and refitted with decorative Mediterranean features, he said.

"It needs to blend in the culture down at the Sponge Docks," Liberis said.

Gambling boat passengers will pay an as-yet-to-be-determined fee to gain access to roughly 300 slot machines. The boat also has a restaurant that will feature live entertainment and serve light fare and 20 gaming tables.

Tuesday night's City Commission vote came a week after city officials raised questions about whether there would be enough parking for casino boat customers in the already crowded Sponge Docks area.

Last week, city officials said they weren't certain sureBet's plan to provide 100 parking spaces in the heart of the city's tourist district would satisfy city codes. But city staffers told commissioners Tuesday that there should be plenty of space for the hundreds of casino boat customers expected to converge on the Sponge Docks.

"There is adequate parking that is legal with respect to the way our codes are written," city planning and zoning director Renea Vincent said.

That assurance _ and a promise from Liberis to supply more parking as needed _ led all but one commissioner at Tuesday's meeting to vote in favor of the plan. City Commissioner Karen Brayboy did not attend Tuesday's meeting. City Commissioner Jim Archer cast the dissenting vote.

"I just don't think it fits in with the uniqueness of the Sponge Docks," Archer said.

Liberis previously had said he would lease 100 parking spaces from Pappas for gambling boat customers' exclusive use. But after talking with Pappas' owner Michael Kastrenakes last week, city staffers determined that sureBet needs to rent just 35 of the 254 spaces owned by Pappas to comply with city codes. As a result, Liberis has signed a new lease that will allow his customers to use up to 50 parking spaces in the restaurant's lot.

"If there is an obvious parking problem we will revisit this issue," City Attorney John Hubbard said.

But some at Tuesday's meeting said that they're still not convinced. Neighborhood resident Jim Lemonidis complained that a parking shortage in the city's main tourist district has already caused major traffic problems in the area. He worried that an increase in Sponge Docks visitors could create havoc for nearby residents.

"Are we going to have these people looking for free parking and taking it away from residents?" Lemonidis asked. "I don't see any way that a gambling boat ever brought money or anything good to our community."

_ Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4181 or rondeauxsptimes.com.

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