(ran North, South editions)
It has been a rocky voyage for a proposal to shuttle gamblers from the Sponge Docks to an offshore floating casino, but a new outfit is working to get a boat running soon.
For more than a year, a would-be casino boat operator tried to bring a new vessel to Tarpon Springs. The project ran aground time after time, with a drawn-out search for adequate parking, boat repairs and last summer's spate of hurricanes.
Now prominent Pensacola lawyer and casino boat executive Charles Liberis has bowed out of the project. He had hoped to get the 202-foot Casino Odyssey sailing before this year's tourist season but had other priorities arise after Hurricane Ivan destroyed his home and other properties.
In his place, a new company unaffiliated with Liberis has applied to shuttle gamblers from a dock behind Pappas' Riverside Restaurant.
The applicant, Mardi Gras Queen Casino, is represented by Matthew L. Plauche of Palm Harbor, according to its application with Tarpon Springs. In paperwork filed with the city, the parent company for Mardi Gras Queen Casino is identified as Top Executive Management of Las Vegas.
Mardi Gras Queen Casino already is advertising on Dodecanese Boulevard and is pursuing the city approvals it needs to begin operation.
Plauche applied in November for a city occupational license to run a shuttle boat from 14 W Dodecanese Blvd. Russell Thornton of Holiday and Dan Breese of Tarpon Springs are listed along with Plauche as the business' emergency contacts.
Tarpon Springs officials denied the occupational license application for a 450-passenger shuttle boat because the city had previously approved a 150-person boat, according to a letter to Plauche from planning and zoning director Renea Vincent.
After that application was denied, Mardi Gras Queen Casino applied for a new conditional use that would allow the company to use the bigger boat. The company also brought in local power lawyer Ed Armstrong, who said his client would like to run a boat that holds as many as 350 passengers. He said the applicant will go through the conditional use process again to get the larger capacity.
This month, the new application will be reviewed by the city's technical review committee, then the Planning and Zoning Board and finally the City Commission. It is tentatively scheduled to be heard by the planning board Jan. 24 and the commission Jan. 25.
Armstrong said his client wants to get the shuttle up and running as soon as possible. Plauche, reached at home last week, deferred all comment to his lawyer.
In January 2004, city commissioners approved Liberis' casino boat proposal and plan to provide 100 parking spaces for his customers.
In July, Liberis said his boat would make its initial voyage by October or November. But when Hurricane Ivan ripped through the Panhandle, Liberis lost his home and more than 50,000 square feet of rental properties damaged by the storm, he said.
Liberis said he voluntarily terminated his lease with Pappas', which had planned to rent a nearby dock for the shuttle boat. For now, his boat is docked in St. Petersburg, and he plans to move it to Pensacola and convert it to a dormitory ship for workers cleaning up after Ivan, he said.
"I just had to give up Tarpon," he said. "As much as I wanted to do it, I just did not have the manpower and the ability to do what I need to do here and get that operation up and running."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.