After Rick Scott veto, Tarpon Springs renews push for money to dredge Anclote River

Kevin Meisman, 37, looks out from the dock of his family’s business, Quality T-Tops & Boat Accessories, in Tarpon Springs. Meisman says that, without dredging along the Anclote River, the number of boats he can service is limited.
Kevin Meisman, 37, looks out from the dock of his family’s business, Quality T-Tops & Boat Accessories, in Tarpon Springs. Meisman says that, without dredging along the Anclote River, the number of boats he can service is limited.
Published Jun. 28, 2017

TARPON SPRINGS — In a pocket formed at the end of a branch of the Anclote River, Kevin Meisman has seen the size of the boats coming by his family's business get smaller.

Over time, sand and debris have made the path to Quality T-Tops & Boats Accessories more shallow. It has become harder to service bigger boats that use a deeper draft, he said, and sometimes a high tide is the only way to get some through.

Although he doesn't place all the blame on the lack of dredging, which could clear silt in the river for more depth, he believes it has played a role in the shift in business.

"If more people are reduced to a certain type of boat they can use, then it means we're reduced to a certain type of work we can do," said Meisman, 37.

He has heard talk from the city for years that a dredging project was imminent, but money has been an obstacle.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed Tarpon Springs' request for about $920,000 in state funding toward dredging the river. Still, city officials plan to continue pushing for a project that many agree is long overdue.

According to an economic impact study the city submitted to the state and to Scott, the river supports nearly 150 businesses and about 2,500 jobs. Mayor Chris Alahouzos says it's the source of $252 million in marine commerce and tourism. He was surprised when he heard about the veto.

The state money would have covered the lease and development cost of the 3-acre spoil site off of L and R Industrial Boulevard near Wesley Avenue to dump the silt dredged from the river.

The city has $300,000 from Pinellas County's Penny for Pinellas funding to offset costs, but Alahouzos said that will be a last resort. He said the city will now apply for funding from the state through the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund in the Department of Economic Opportunity.

"I think the state should be honoring our request because it's so important to our economy," he said.

Without dredging, he said, the safety of those who work on the river could be jeopardized if they can dock only during high tide.

At a June meeting, city commissioners echoed sentiments about pushing state and federal officials for funding.

Vice Mayor David Banther said he believes it will take trips to Tallahassee to prove to them how important the project is to the city. He added that the public should continue to lobby as well.

"Your role is just as important as ours in this, and you have to keep in contact with all the representatives," he told the audience. "Because if we don't put the pressure on them, it's just not going to happen."

Alahouzos said state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, were supportive of the project by adding it to the budget. But he plans to also appeal to officials at the federal level to fund the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the river. An estimated $4 million to $5 million in federal funding is still needed to cover the cost of the project.

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The last time the Army Corps dredged the river was in 1998, an effort which former City Manager Costa Vatikiotis said he helped push forward. But even that took a number of hands at the city, county, state and federal levels.

"Getting the money was as difficult as it is right now," the Tarpon Springs native said, recalling multiple meetings with the former mayor and state legislators to secure funding.

Vatikiotis said the passage of almost two decades since the last dredging shows how the river has become secondary to other issues such as beaches and upland matters. He said he has been critical of government, both at the local and state level, because he thinks officials, particularly Scott, haven't paid attention to the impact of the river.

"I don't think he's been well-briefed on the importance the river has on (job creation)," Vatikiotis said. "There needs to be a direct line of communication to make sure that point is made clear to him."

Recently, out on a wet slip on Doc of the Bay, 109 Oscar Hill Road, Rick Miller points out a path that boats have to take to avoid hitting the silt along the edges of the river.

Since 2003, he has catered to boat owners with services and storage areas. Today, those who dock at his shop have to take a specific path to navigate out into the river because of built up debris along the edges.

Had the state invested in dredging the river, the revenue would have been tenfold what they put in, Miller said. And if a tropical storm were to come through, he feels it could leave his business landlocked.

"It's only going to get worse," Miller said.