TARPON SPRINGS — This city on the Anclote River is known worldwide for its historic Sponge Docks, a scenic stretch of restaurants, shops and waterfront attractions that runs the length of Dodecanese Boulevard.
And while there is no question the docks are the main economic driver for the community, officials see room for growth.
Planning and Zoning Director Heather Urwiller recently presented an ordinance to the City Commission calling for an amendment to the city code. The proposed changes, which gained preliminary approval, are intended to encourage commercial redevelopment in certain areas, including the eastern entrance and the western end of the Sponge Docks.
The amendments would change the number of seats allowed for neighborhood restaurants from 40 to 49 and would provide ''more flexibility in the uses and functions'' of buildings, Urwiller said.
“The area seems to be transitioning, and we’re having requests come in for new restaurants and in the area,” she said.
The reactions from the commissioners were primarily positive. The four commissioners at the meeting said they want to encourage redevelopment in that area of the docks while also raising concerns about parking, boat docking and keeping the character of the historic district intact.
“It has been our goal to attract more businesses down to the area, and I think by modifying the special district down there we’re accomplishing that,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said.
Julie Ann Russell of the Rusty Bellies restaurant said she supported the proposed code amendments.
“I encourage additional business to come into the area,” Russell said. “I just want to make sure that we don’t lose the fishing portion, the crab traps and the ability to unload boats. That is something that has been our heritage, and Tarpon Springs’ heritage, for many, many years.”
Russell, whose popular seafood restaurant is at the westernmost tip of the public portion of the docks, cautioned any redevelopment in the area would create a need for additional parking while adding, “I’m all for changes to make things better. I look at it as a positive.”
Ed Spaeth, who owns the Turtle Cove Marina and several lots in area, said he also supports the proposal.
“I’m all for bringing more people to the town,” Spaeth said, noting 90 percent of the boaters who use his marina visit other restaurants in the area.
Following the public comments, Urwiller said that to ensure certain elements remain in place during redevelopment talks, she would like to see the business owners “come together and kind of talk about what they want that area to look like, what is it that they are trying to maintain.
“Because I agree part of the draw of that waterfront isn’t just the waterfront, it’s the history that’s there, and what does that history look like?”
The ordinance passed on first reading by a vote of 4-0. Commissioner David Banther was absent. The item is scheduled for a second reading on Tuesday.
After the meeting Commissioner Rea Sieber, who owns two shops on the west end of the docks, spoke about the plan to revitalize the area.
“I think that whole area is a beautiful area on the river,” she said, “and we want to keep the feel of a fishing town, maybe have a boardwalk like John’s Pass and boat slips.”
Sieber, a former president of the Sponge Docks Merchants Association, said she has long fought for boosting the visibility of that section of the docks, and she said she is encouraged by the current collaboration between merchants and the city.
“This has been discussed with business owners and there will be further discussions,” she said. “We want to enhance what’s down there. I think this is going to be positive for the merchants on the west end of the docks and unite us with the other end of Dodecanese.”